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AU Peacekeepers Missing After Rebel Attack in Darfur

October 1, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlayne, thank you for talking with us. We’re reading not only that this was a large attack, but that it was unusually well-orchestrated.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Judy, it was on an unprecedented scale. I mean, they say there’s nothing of this scale that’s happened so far. There have been little skirmishes and other attacks, but this was huge. The attackers were well-equipped. They had land cruisers, we’re told. And they seemed to know exactly what they were after.

And the country is just reeling from this, especially the humanitarian aid workers who can’t even get anywhere near the scene. And they say there’s 70,000 people just stranded there while all this chaos is going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clear information yet about number of casualties?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, they’ve been reporting that there were 10 of the peacekeepers killed. I think most of them were Nigerians; at least that’s what I heard from some U.N. people yesterday.

But nobody knows how many others have been injured, because nobody can get near the place. It’s very remote. And there’s nobody to go in to investigate. The aid workers can’t go in. And so it’s just a terrible situation right now, where they don’t even know where the people are who are missing and what’s happened to them, whether they’ve been killed or just kidnapped or what.

Trying to point blame

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how much is known about who might have been behind this?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, everybody's blaming everybody else now. You know, initially, there were only three main rebel groups. And they've broken apart and multiplied and tripled, and now there's some 22 factions, in addition to bandits, in addition to militias. And one is blaming the other.

You know, the government is alleged to have bombed this area two weeks ago. The government has denied this. And some are saying that this has been retaliation for that.

But, you know, it's just very difficult to get any solid information with everybody pointing the finger at everybody else. Some even say it was the breakaway movement of one of the factions. But the main faction, that is a group called the JEM rebels, have condemned the attack and said it was terrible. So it's just hard to say.

Ability of A.U. forces to protect

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the timing of this, Charlayne? This comes as there are efforts underway to try to get more African countries to let their soldiers join this peacekeeping effort and as another attempt at peace talks is on the horizon.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That's right. You know, they're going to -- the president, al-Bashir, has insisted in the past that the forces be predominantly African, certainly African-led. He finally agreed to a U.N. force, provided the chain of command is in the hands of Africans.

But as someone told me at an event I went to tonight in Khartoum, this attack sent a message. And part of that message is that the A.U. troops can't protect the people. Look what's happening to them. And now the U.N. is going to come in, and they're going to be unarmed. "Who's going to protect us?" this person said.

And so that's one possibility, that a message was being said that we're in control. Someone else has said that a message was being sent that this particular group is jockeying for a place at the peace talks, which are going to happen in Tripoli, Libya, at the end of this month.

So that there's just -- you know, nobody really knows. It's just a situation in which the place is so fraught with conflict that just about any kind of rumor could possibly be the truth.

A fragile peace agreement

JUDY WOODRUFF: You and I were talking earlier, Charlayne. You said this episode underscores the fragility of what there is left of the peace agreement that was reached earlier.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I was talking about primarily the comprehensive peace agreement between the north and the south. As you know, they've been at war for decades. And they finally had a comprehensive peace agreement, which everybody says now is in danger of unraveling, because promises haven't been kept to the very deprived south. There's mistrust between the leadership in the north and the south.

And if this agreement does not hold, people are saying this is the backbone of peace in the country. If it doesn't hold, what's happening in genocide will look like a picnic. So the importance of getting Darfur peaceful or getting a peace resolved there is great, but an even greater challenge is what they're calling a holistic approach, that they've got to get the leaders trusting each other, talking to one another, and getting more people than the warring factions involved in the peace talks, like the civil society groups and the actual citizens in Darfur, and the north and the south.

So it's a very tenuous, fragile situation all over the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Charlayne Hunter-Gault talking with us from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Charlayne, thank you very much.