The AU has previously complained of a lack of equipment in Darfur, including attack helicopters and rapid response vehicles. They have also said their force was too small to contain the conflict in the vast region.

Security reassessed

Martin Luther Agwai , AU force commander, said the mission was making contingency plans and reassessing security but there was little more that could be done without getting additional equipment and troops.

"People did deployment on the premise that there was an [peace] agreement and they were coming to inspect and act as observers - there was no planning for people to be able defend themselves," he said.

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The African force of around 7,000 troops from 26 countries is due to be replaced later this year by a joint AU-UN force, consisting of 26,000 troops.

The African Union began its the investigation into the attack, which also left 40 peacekeepers missing, on Monday.

Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), said: "The enquiry is under way and we will make its conclusions public. Those who carried out this attack will be strongly sanctioned."

Seventeen other peacekeepers who were kidnapped in the raid were later discovered to the south of the base, Mezni said.

The Sudanese army and Darfur's separatist groups have blamed each other for the attack. 

It was the worst strike on AU soldiers since they deployed in 2004.

'Outrageous act'

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, condemned the killings and called on Darfur's warring sides to recommit to a settlement, ahead peace talks to be held in Libya on October 27, as well as preparations for a joint deployment of AU-UN troops.

"The secretary general condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent attack on African Union peacekeepers in Haskanita, south Darfur and calls for the perpetrators to be held fully accountable for this outrageous act," he said in a statement.

Haskanita, in the far southeast of Darfur, has seen heavy fighting between the army, militias and rebels.

An alliance between Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity faction has become the largest military threat to Khartoum in recent months.

Suleiman Jamous, a member of the SLA, said if his faction was involved in the attack it was a local decision, not ordered by the leadership.
   
"I have asked the leadership of SLA Unity to withdraw all the troops from the area, to where they can be under the direct control of the military command," he said.

Saturday's attack casts a shadow on AU-UN-mediated talks between the rebel groups and the government due to begin in Libya on October 27.

Bandits, militia splinter groups and tribal clashes also threaten any attempt to achieve peace and stability in western Sudan.