At least seven soldiers from the joint U.N. - African Union peacekeeping force in the Darfur region of western Sudan are dead after gunmen ambushed a patrol. From VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, Derek Kilner reports.

The attack took occurred in Um Haqiba, in North Darfur. According to U.N. officials, there have been recent disputes in the area between Arab militias and forces loyal to Minni Minnawi, a former rebel leader who joined the government after signing a 2006 peace agreement.

At least 40 vehicles were involved in the attack. A U.N. spokesperson said about 22 peacekeepers were also injured in the ambushed.

The incident is the latest in a series of attacks on the peacekeeping force, since it took over from an African Union mission in January. A patrol was ambushed by gunmen in May, and in June a Ugandan peacekeeper was killed.

Hafiz Mohammed, who leads the Sudan program at Justice Africa in London, says the latest attack reflects the deteriorating security situation on the ground.

"The situation is very bad. Instead of actually protecting the civilians, they will end up not able even to protect themselves. It's sad to see this happening. It's going to discourage countries to contribute to the unit, which is creating problems," said Mohammed. "This is the security situation in Darfur, nobody is immune from being attacked.

The U.N. Security Council authorized a force of 26,000 for the mission. But so far, fewer than 10,000 have been deployed. The Sudanese government has thrown up roadblocks in the form of restrictions on troop contribution countries and other issues. But donor governments have also been unwilling to contribute troops and equipment.

Undermanned, the mission has been vulnerable to attacks. But in a vicious cycle of sorts, the mission's struggles may be discouraging countries from contributing resources. 

The Darfur region has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, with a growing number of rebel factions and Arab militias, along with a increase in banditry. The identity of Wednesday's attackers is not yet known. But Mohammed says that it would not be surprising if members of the Janjaweed militia, which has been armed by the government in Khartoum, were responsible. The government, he says, is worried that the U.N. force could be used to go after officials wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes in Darfur.

"One of the government's strategies is actually to attack any international force. Because they think the mandate of the international force might change and they end up chasing the people who might be indicted by the ICC," added Mohammed. "And that is actually deliberately done by the government."

The United Nations says the conflict has displaced some 2.5 million people and killed up to 300,000 others.