Two AU soldiers killed in Sudan's volatile Darfur region

Two African Union peacekeeping soldiers from Nigeria were killed in an ambush Saturday in Sudan's volatile Darfur region, a senior AU official said, marking the first deaths sustained by the African mission since deploying here last year.

Two civilian contractors attached to the AU peacekeeping team were also killed in the attack that occurred near Kourabishi, a town in South Darfur state, said the AU's acting head of mission, Jean-Baptiste Natama, in a telephone interview.

Three other African Union soldiers were wounded in the attack, Natama said without saying who was behind the ambush or providing further details. The attack occurred while European Union security affairs chief Javier Solana made a brief visit to Darfur, a vast, troubled region in western Sudan where more than two years of conflict has left 180,000 people dead mainly through disease and hunger.

Earlier in the capital, Khartoum, Solana met with Sudanese First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who said he "has committed himself" to ending the Darfur conflict, the EU official told reporters. Solana then boarded a two-hour flight to the North Darfur town of El-Fasher to visit to a refugee camp of 80,000 people, many living in plastic tents bearing the names of the many humanitarian organizations operating here.

Nigerian Maj. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, the commanding officer of the African Union peacekeeping mission, painted a bleak picture for Solana about a conflict that sprawls across a vast desert hundreds of miles (kilometers) west of Khartoum.

Darfur rebels from black African tribes took up arms against government forces in early 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression. They have accused the government of unleashing Arab tribal militia known as Janjaweed against civilians in a terror campaign that has also displaced 2 million people.

In parallel to peace talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, making little progress, Okonkwo said "there has been an escalation of cease-fire violations" in recent weeks with an "uneasy calm" descending over Darfur through the "lack of control" commanders have over their combatants.

The AU mission in Darfur began in April 2004 with less than 500 peacekeepers and has grown to 6,200 with financial and logistical support from the EU, the United States and others. Okonkwo complained that while Canada had shipped 25 armored vehicles, only 12 had been delivered and the rest remain at the dock in the Ivory Coast capital of Dakar.

Critics say Sudanese red tape keeps the vehicles in Dakar, indicating the Khartoum government's lack of commitment to resolve the Darfur crisis. Earlier, however, Kiir, told Solana that ending the Darfur turmoil was key to resolving other ethnic crises in his country, Africa's largest.

EU diplomats said Kiir expressed concern Darfur was having a spillover effect on ethnic tensions in eastern Sudan. Solana also was to have met President Omar al-Bashir but the meeting was canceled due to an illness in the president's family, EU diplomats said. Solana and Kiir also discussed implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January, which ended a 21-year north-south civil war.

Full implementation of the deal and its power-sharing arrangements has been slow due to the death of First Vice President John Garang de Mabior in a July helicopter crash, three weeks after he took office. Kiir was named his successor. Just last month, Sudan's new national unity Cabinet was sworn in, incorporating members of the ruling party and Garang and Kiir's Sudan People's Liberation Movement, AP reports.

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