(New York) - The killing of 10 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur is a war crime and should be promptly investigated by the United Nations and the African Union, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 30, unidentified forces attacked an African Union base in Haskanita, South Darfur, killing 10 AU peacekeepers and civilian police. At least 8 other personnel from the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) were seriously injured and approximately 40 remain missing, according to AU statements. Unconfirmed reports say the attack was carried out by unidentified rebel forces. The loss of life was the worst suffered to date by the under-resourced AU force.

“Deliberately attacking peacekeepers is a war crime,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Sudanese government and the rebel groups should cooperate fully with an independent investigation into the dreadful attack in Haskanita.”

Customary laws of war and the statute of the International Criminal Court prohibit directing attacks against personnel and objects involved in international peacekeeping missions, so long as they are not directly involved in hostilities.

The AMIS force in Darfur comprises approximately 7,000 troops and civilian police. For now, it is virtually the only force on the ground in Darfur providing civilian protection. A 26,000-member AU-UN hybrid operation, UNAMID, was authorized in July 2007 and is to be deployed in early January 2008.

AMIS’s mission has been to monitor the Darfur Peace Agreement and several other ceasefire agreements. Its peacekeepers patrol a harsh, desert region the size of France, much of it barely accessible by road.

Attacks on AMIS personnel have increased in the past year. Since the force was deployed in 2004, more than 25 soldiers and staff have been killed and dozens injured. On April 17, 2007, unknown armed assailants killed five AMIS soldiers guarding a water point in Um Baru, North Darfur. A Nigerian commander who was kidnapped outside the AMIS compound in Al Fashir has been missing since December 2006.

The attack on Sunday took place as preparations are underway for the deployment of UNAMID and a new round of peace talks in Tripoli, Libya, on October 27.