In the aftermath of the attack, African Union relations with the camp and SLA have turned frosty.
Last week, AU soldiers began digging foxholes and building sandbag positions around the base. Patrols were halted, and visitors from the displacement camp were turned away at the barbed-wire fence.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Sudan caption: A photograph accompanying an article in Section A on Tuesday about rebels in Darfur, Sudan, was taken in Kuteri, not Gereida.
"Tempers here are very high," Anogo said.
"We're in mourning."
SLA leaders said concerns about lack of security were exaggerated.
"Security is OK," said Abu Gasim Ahmed Mohamed, SLA commander of Gereida. "There are no problems." He downplayed tribal divisions and said that the biggest security threat was the Sudanese government's failure to disarm the \o7janjaweed \f7that roam the town's perimeter.
The rebels denied any role in the attack on the peacekeepers. "They always accuse us, but we're innocent," said Abdul Aziz Abdalla, the local SLA chief of security.
He refused to say how many fighters were based in Gereida, but said he could muster an army of 10,000 on short notice.
His forces patrol the tiny town in topless Toyota Land Cruisers, guns and grenade launchers strapped to the side. Mohamed said he restocked his weapons by stealing them from government troops, but experts say guns are also being funneled in through neighboring Chad.
SLA fighters condemned the AU as ineffective and battle-shy. They complained that AU soldiers preyed on local women, got drunk and left base without adequate protection or interpreters. Last year, AU officials investigated complaints involving suspected sexual misconduct by their troops and seven women in Gereida.
SLA officials also denied orchestrating the Dec. 18 attack against the compounds of Action Against Hunger and Oxfam International. In addition to the rape, foreign workers were subjected to mock executions. Despite SLA denials, AU and aid workers say it would be impossible for bandits to escape with a dozen SUVs and not be stopped or noticed by SLA checkpoints.
The day after the attack, more than 70 international aid workers left Gereida. Their work is now handled by fewer than a dozen Red Cross employees.
"The attack in Gereida was a new level," said a representative for an aid group that has pulled out of the camp. Humanitarian groups say they will not return until SLA forces can guarantee their safety and arrange for the return of their vehicles.
Gereida is not alone. Aid workers have also evacuated other hot zones in Darfur, including Kutum, about 200 miles northwest of here. Some aid groups have restricted staff to the three provincial capitals in the Darfur region. Citing the rising risk, the French organization Doctors of the World terminated operations in Darfur in January, and others have threatened to follow suit.
Those living in Gereida's displacement camp say they are the ones paying the price. The Red Cross health clinic remains open, but another operated by the British aid group Merlin stands empty, with just a guard.
UNICEF once gave out school notebooks and clothes and subsidized teacher salaries. Since December, some teachers' pay has been cut in half, forcing them to pressure students and their families to pay fees.
Water pumps, latrines and classrooms are falling into disrepair because aid groups are no longer around to fix them.
Abakar Osman Adouma, 27, supported his wife and five children by working at French food distributor Action Against Hunger. Now he's lost his job and his $5-a-day salary.
To earn cash, he said, he's trying to repair shoes in the camp. But few residents have money to spend. And he doesn't dare go into town in search of other customers, he said.
"It's not safe," he said.
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Fighting broke out in 2003 between Sudanese government forces and rebel groups who said the Darfur region had been neglected. Arab militias known as \o7janjaweed\f7 are accused of committing some of the violence, allegedly with support from the government.
Violence continues despite the signing of a cease-fire and a peace deal. Estimates are that more than 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million forced from their homes.
The United States declared the conflict a genocide in 2004.
African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stop the fighting, but Sudan has rejected elements of a plan to deploy U.N. troops too.
Source: Times wire services