08/10/2005 20:36 KHARTOUM (AFP)
Two African Union peacekeeping soldiers and two civilian contractors were killed Saturday in Darfur, the first time the AU has suffered fatalities in the conflict-torn Sudanese region, an AU official said.
Noureddine Muzni told AFP that the troops hailed from Nigeria and three others were also wounded in the ambush, which occurred near the town of Nyala in South Darfur state.
He said the soldiers were targeted while on patrol and described the incident as "extremely grave and serious", adding that an investigation was already underway to find the culprits.
The three wounded, also from Nigeria, were airlifted to an AU hospital in al-Fasher in North Darfur state, Muzni also said. The nationality of the contractors was not immediately clear.
The pan-African body has some 6,300 troops in Darfur tasked with monitoring a fragile ceasefire between black African rebels and government-backed Arab militias. It is looking to increase its contingent to 7,700.
An estimated 180,000 to 300,000 people have died in Darfur, with some 2.6 million civilians left homeless since fighting erupted in February 2003.
The killings occurred as the warring parties prepared for the latest round of peace talks in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Monday, at a time of increased volatility in the devastated region.
Both sides have expressed optimism that they would be able to negotiate a broad political settlement on the issues of power and wealth sharing between Darfur and the central government.
But the AU has admitted that the talks are moving very slowly, with divisions within the main Darfur rebel movement -- the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) -- holding up progress.
The killing of the AU troops comes at a time of renewed fighting which is undermining the ceasefire between government and rebel movements which was agreed in April 2004 and had largely held despite sporadic attacks.
Earlier this month the African Union's mission in Sudan accused government forces and Arab militias of launching joint attacks on villages and refugee camps in Darfur, in which at least 44 civilians were killed.
The conflict also spilled over into neighbouring Chad in late September, when 55 villagers were killed along with 17 militiamen and three Chadian soldiers in an attack near the border.