A breakaway faction of the guerrilla Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) kidnapped 38 African Union (AU) personnel on Sunday, a day after the 53-nation pan-African organisation suffered its first casualties in the arid region, AU officials said.

JEM fighters helped secure the release of the hostages after gun battles with the kidnappers, one of the freed hostages and JEM commanders said. The splinter group denied it was involved in the kidnappings.

The Cameroonian leader of the AU team, who was one of the last two hostages still being held on Monday, confirmed that he and his Sudanese translator had been freed after a shootout.

Kidnappings

"We are safe - there was some firing, but they managed to liberate us," he said by phone, declining to give his name.

The conflict has forced two
million to flee their homes

On Saturday, three AU soldiers and two civilian contractors were killed farther south after an ambush blamed on Darfur's main rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).

"Both rebels and government must understand that, if these incidents continue, it will impede humanitarian assistance and delivery," Annan told a news conference in Geneva.

"It's already impeding access to some of the people in need and it may require a cessation of operations in some parts of the territory," the UN secretary-general said.

Unstable ceasefire

The AU deploys 6000 troops to monitor a shaky ceasefire in Darfur, where rebels took up arms in 2003 accusing the government of neglect and of monopolising power and wealth.

Thirty-eight African Union
peacekeepers were kidnapped

Aid agencies in recent weeks have denounced bandits for an increase in attacks on aid convoys trying to deliver supplies in Darfur, where the revolt against Khartoum has killed tens of thousands and forced two million to flee their homes.

The increase in violence, coinciding with the start of peace talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, prompted the AU last week to voice its harshest public criticism yet of the Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government.

Annan said it was Sudan's duty to protect aid workers and AU peacekeepers on its territory, even if it was rebels who were responsible for the hostage-taking.

Militia warning

Civilians continued to suffer in Darfur, where rapes and other crimes are being committed, according to the UN chief.

"A firm stand must be taken by the government," he said.

"The AU have become part of the conflict...  We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to travel to our areas"

Mohamed Saleh,
Justice and Equality Movement leader

The leader of the JEM breakaway faction denied involvement in Sunday's kidnappings but accused the AU of taking sides.

"The AU have become part of the conflict," Mohamed Saleh said from Darfur. "We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to travel to our areas."

A sixth round of AU-sponsored talks began last month between the government and the two main Darfur rebel groups, the SLA and the JEM. But the negotiations have been plagued by rebel divisions and violence.

AU sources said Saleh's group, which split from JEM's leadership earlier this year, was demanding a seat at the Abuja talks.

Aid agencies

Saleh was the military head of the JEM who signed the April ceasefire. He said he now commanded thousands of troops in Darfur and would not honour either the ceasefire or any agreement reached in Abuja.

"We went to Abuja and they [the AU] refused to talk to us," he said. "So now we will not talk to them."

The JEM, SLA and the AU mediator all said talks in Abuja would continue despite the attacks.

Many aid agencies in the vast region are refusing to travel with AU escorts, saying the peacekeepers themselves attract fire.

Many areas in south and west Darfur, where attacks have recently targeted AU forces and aid convoys, have been cut off without aid for weeks after the recent escalation in fighting.