Khartoum April 16 2023: Clashes erupted across Sudan between the army and a rival paramilitary force as a long-simmering dispute exploded into a full-blown battle for control of the North African nation.
Fighting between the Rapid Support Forces group and the military engulfed the airport, presidential palace and other parts of the capital, Khartoum, on Saturday, with reports of airstrikes and at least 26 people dead across the country. Violence flared in the western territory of Darfur, stoking fears of a return to all-out civil war.
“We urge all actors to stop the violence immediately and avoid further escalations or troop mobilizations and continue talks to resolve outstanding issues,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The UN Security Council called on all parties to cease hostilities and restore calm. In a statement, the council stressed the importance that humanitarian access is maintained and the safety of UN personnel is ensured.
The conflict between the military under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF militia throws into chaos plans for a power-sharing government that would lead Sudan to democratic elections after a 2021 coup. A deal was seen as way to restore billions of dollars of frozen aid and reestablish Western influence in a country coveted by Russia and China for its strategic Red Sea coastline and mineral resources.
The confrontation, which has produced the worst violence in Khartoum’s modern history, had long been foreseen. A looming political deal that would restore power to civilians also looked set to fold the RSF — which has its own command structure, wealth and commercial interests — into the regular military.
Although it lacks the military’s tanks and air power, the RSF — led by one-time camel trader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — is a seasoned fighting force notorious for its scorched-earth tactics that may field as many as 70,000 fighters, according to the International Crisis Group. That raises the prospect of an extended conflict that could also draw in Sudan’s neighbors.
The RSF has its origins in the janjaweed militias that terrorized Darfur during the conflict earlier this century. Dagalo is thought to harbor his own presidential ambitions and has forged close ties with Russia in recent years.
“This fight has been building within the security ranks for months, even years,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the CSIS Africa Program. “There’s a lot of pent up frustration and resentment. None of that suggests that this will be over quickly.”
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Each side blamed the other for the violence. Speaking to Al-Jazeera TV on Saturday, Dagalo accused Burhan of acting on behalf of those in the country who were still in favor of Islamist dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019 amid a popular revolt.
“We will catch Burhan and bring him to justice,” he said. “We will end this in the coming days.”
The military chief, meanwhile, declared in a statement there would be “no negotiations and no dialogue before the dissolving of Hemedti’s rebellious militia,” using a common nickname for the RSF leader.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, a coalition of labor unions that leads demonstrations against military rule, called on its members to form peace committees and protect local neighborhoods.
Airlines canceled flights out of Khartoum and began to avoid Sudanese airspace, as amateur videos on social media showed travelers ducking for cover at the airport. Both sides claimed to control the facility at different points on Saturday.
Other videos shared with Bloomberg by witnesses purported to show military jets firing rockets at sites around Khartoum and its twin city, Omdurman. It wasn’t clear who was being targeted or what damage was caused.
The Associated Press said 103 people were wounded in addition the fatalities, citing a doctors’ group.
Volker Perthes, special representative for the UN secretary-general in Sudan, said in a statement that he had reached out to both the army and the RSF, urging them to “spare the country from further violence.”