A Darfur town has been razed to the ground since it came under the control of Sudanese troops this week, the United Nations says.
Observers who inspected the town of Haskanita say 15,000 civilians had fled since the army moved in.
The North Darfur town of Haskanita, “which is currently under the control of the government, was completely burned down, except for a few buildings”, the UN mission to Sudan said in a statement.
The UN said Sudanese government forces took control of the area after suspected Darfur rebels attacked the nearby African Union (AU) base a week ago, killing 10 peacekeepers. The UN insisted it was not making accusations on who burned down Haskanita.
“The UN has no mandate to investigate security incidents,” the UN spokeswoman in Sudan, Radhia Achouri said, adding that it would be up to the AU to find out what happened.
For its part, the AU confirmed it was investigating the attack on the base, but could not say whether it would enlarge its inquiry to the nearby destroyed town.
AU investigations are carried out through a body known as the Ceasefire Commission, which includes representatives of the Sudanese army and some rebels. They have to approve findings before they are made public.
A UN official who just came back from Haskanita, however, said there was a full army battalion, or 800 men, now stationed at the entrance of the town, which he described as “still smouldering”.
“There’s absolutely no doubt the army and janjaweed did it,” the official said, requesting anonymity because the Sudanese government regularly expels observers who speak out. He said the town was now empty.
The Arab-dominated government and its allied janjaweed militias of nomad Arabs are accused of regularly burning ethnic African villages as part of their counterinsurgency campaign against local rebels.
Sudan’s government denies backing the janjaweed, who are accused of the worst atrocities in four years of conflict that has killed 200,000 people and forced 2.5 million from their homes, largely ethnic Africans.
International aid workers, several local rebel chiefs and UN officials who had just returned from Haskanita said the town of about 15,000 had emptied last Sunday and Monday because of the suspected rebel attack on the nearby AU base. Government troops looted the town on Tuesday, they said, and began burning it down on Wednesday.
The international aid workers and UN officials dismissed claims by some rebel chiefs that there were civilian casualties in Haskanita.
General Martin Agwai, the commander of the underfunded and ill-equipped AU force of 7,000 currently in Darfur, vowed at the funeral of the murdered peacekeepers this week he would rebuild Haskanita’s base and resend troops there soon.
Agwai is also to head a joint mission of 26,000 UN and AU peacekeepers due to takeover on January 1.
Large quantities of ammunition and several vehicles were looted from the base when rebels raided it, killing 10 and injuring 14 peacekeepers in an attack that threw into peril new peace talks between the Sudanese government and Darfur’s many rebel factions.
George Ola-Davies, the spokesman for the joint UN-AU mediation team, said today the venue of the talks had been changed from the capital of Tripoli to Sirte, the town where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi usually resides.
The attack on the AU’s Haskanita base and the razing of the town would not delay the opening of negotiations, the spokesman said.