African peacekeepers killed three Darfur rioters during a protest outside their base, a UN official said on Monday, the first deaths of civilians at the hands of the force in a further deterioration of the conflict.
In a separate incident, the African Union reported on Monday that two of its peacekeepers had been kidnapped by gunmen the night before.
The riot and shooting on Sunday was a further sign of increasing instability in a conflict that has grown in brutality in recent months. It took place in El Geneina, a town near the border with Chad.
After the riot, Sudanese police deployed around the peacekeepers' base protecting a force that was intended to protect civilians but has been unable to stop the increasing violence.
The refugees protesting at the base were relatives of 30 civilians who were executed by pro-government janjaweed fighters on Saturday. They were protesting against the AU for what they say is the peacekeeping force's failure to protect them. Peacekeepers opened fire when the crowd threatened the base, killing three, said the UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
An AU officer in El Geneina, near the border with Chad, told The Associated Press that only two people had died, and that peacekeepers opened fire because fighters carrying rocket-propelled grenades were sighted among the crowd. The officer also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give information to the press.
The African Union said it could not immediately comment on the case.
African Union peacekeepers have been deployed in Darfur since mid-2004 on a mission to protect Darfur's civilians in a three-year conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.
The war pits government troops and their janjaweed allies against ethnic African rebels. The janjaweed are accused of atrocities including killing and raping civilians in attacks on their villages. The shooting will likely only worsen the widespread hostility toward the force among Darfurian refugees, who frequently complain the peacekeepers don't prevent janjaweed attacks. The 7,000-strong mission has been too understaffed and underquipped to halt increasing violence in Darfur.
On Saturday, janjaweed ambushed a truck between El Geneina and the nearby town of Sirba, killing 30 people shooting some of the victims and burning others alive. Angry relatives briefly abducted eight AU peacekeepers sent to investigate the incident, releasing them later in the day.
In a separate incident, the AU said on Monday that two peacekeepers were abducted and their car stolen by gunmen in the capital of North Darfur, El Fasher, late on Sunday. It did not say who was believed to be behind the kidnapping.
A UN official said a Nigerian major was among those abducted close to the house of the African Union's force commander in El Fasher.
El Fasher has been the scene over thepast week of looting attacks by janjaweed who killed 10 people in the town prompting protests by residents against the AU, who are based there. But on Monday, some 500 janjaweed and 250 Chadian rebels hired by the Sudanese government withdrew from El Fasher after the governor of North Darfur complained, the UN official said. Mohammed Yussuf Kebir, who was appointed by Khartoum, threatned to resign unless the janjaweed were reined in. The janjaweed pulled out after Sudan's police chief, defense and interior ministers held high-level meetings in El Fasher on Sunday, the U.N. official said under condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Though the government insists it does not control the janjaweed and does not back rebels from neighboring Chad, the UN official said these fighters were directly controlled by Khartoum's top leadership.
In a separate incident, some 43 refugees held captive by Arab militiamen in the West Darfur refugee camp of Zalingei were released Monday, aid workers said.
The refugees were released after handing over to police men suspected of having beaten up three nomads.
A refugee woman of about 60 was also gang raped and tortured by the nomads in retaliation, the aid workers in Zalingei said.