Violent clashes erupt between Sudanese army and paramilitaries, sparking international concern

Heavy fighting broke out in the Sudanese capital on Saturday between the army and the country’s powerful paramilitary force, raising fears of a wider conflict in the chaotic country. A group of medics said at least three people had been killed and dozens injured.

Clashes between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group capped months of heightened tensions between the two sides that forced the delay of an agreement with political parties to restore the country’s short-lived transition towards democracy.

The sound of heavy gunfire could be heard in the capital, Khartoum, and its sister city of Omdurman, where the army and RSF have mustered tens of thousands of troops since an October 2021 military coup that derailed Sudan’s fragile path to democracy.

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan told Al Jazeera TV: “We believe that if they are wise, they will push back their troops who have entered Khartoum. But if this continues, we will have to deploy troops to Khartoum from other regions. “

RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, called al-Burhan a “criminal” and a “liar”.

“We know where you are hiding and we will find you and bring you to justice, or you will die like any other dog,” he said in an interview with the station.

“Fires and explosions are everywhere”

Residents described chaotic scenes in Khartoum and Omdurman as gunfire and explosions rang out in densely populated neighborhoods. “Fires and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor at a public hospital in Omdurman. “All run and seek shelter.”

Another Khartoum resident, Abdel-Hamid Mustafa, said soldiers from both sides in armored trucks were seen shooting at each other in streets and residential areas. “We have never seen such battles in Khartoum before,” she said.

Smoke rises from a neighborhood in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, on Saturday. (Marwan Ali/Associated Press)

Commercial flights turn back from Sudan

One of the flashpoints was Khartoum International Airport, where clashes grounded commercial flights to Sudan from Saudi Arabia, which turned back after nearly landing at the airport, showed flight tracking data on Saturday.

Saudi Arabia’s national airline said one of its Airbus A330s was involved in “an accident”. The video showed the plane on fire on the tarmac. Another plane also appears to have caught fire during the attack. FlightRadar24 flight tracking website identified it as a SkyUp Airlines Boeing 737. SkyUp is an airline based in Kyiv. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Sudanese Doctors Union said two civilians were killed at the airport, without specifying the circumstances. The committee said in a statement that another man was shot dead in North Kordofan state.

Smoke rises over a city.
Clashes between the Sudanese army and the country’s paramilitaries have erupted in the capital and elsewhere in the African country after weeks of escalating tensions. (Marwan Ali/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that a BBC News Arabic correspondent in Khartoum, Mohamed Osman, was beaten by a Sudanese soldier. The broadcaster said the army stopped Osman’s car on his way to work and he was taken to army headquarters in Omdurman. As he was explaining his movements to officers, he was struck in the head from behind by a soldier, the BBC reported.

The fighting comes after months of escalating tensions between generals and years of political turmoil following the October 2021 military coup.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior diplomats have expressed extreme concern over the outbreak of violence. “We urge all actors to immediately stop the violence and avoid further escalations or troop mobilizations and continue talks to resolve outstanding issues,” Blinken wrote on Twitter.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres; the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell; the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat; Arab League boss Ahmed Aboul Gheit; and Qatar have all called for a ceasefire and for the two sides to resume negotiations to settle their dispute.

Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, ousted in the 2021 coup, has warned of possible regional conflict if fighting escalates. He urged army and RSF leaders to cease hostilities immediately.

“The shooting must stop immediately,” he said in a video message posted on his Twitter account.

Long-simmering tensions

The army and the RSF shared responsibility for initiating the clashes, which were concentrated in Khartoum but also took place in other parts of the country.

Current tensions between the army and the paramilitaries stem from disagreement over how the RSF should be integrated into the army and who should oversee the process. The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement with the political groups.

A man speaks into a microphone.
General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of Sudan’s sovereign council, speaks during a press conference at the Rapid Support Forces headquarters in Khartoum on February 19. Tensions between the army and the RSF have intensified in recent months. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

The fighting began at a military base south of Khartoum, with the two sides trading accusations of launching an attack. The clashes then spread to many areas of the capital, particularly around the army headquarters, the airport and the Republican Palace, the seat of the country’s presidency.

The RSF alleged in a statement that their forces controlled many strategic locations in Khartoum and the northern town of Merowe, some 350 kilometers northwest of Khartoum. The military dismissed the claims as “lies”.

In a series of statements, the military also declared the RSF to be a rebel force and unleashed the powerful air force against RSF positions in and around Khartoum.

Volker Perthes, the United Nations envoy for Sudan, called on both sides for “an immediate cessation of fighting to ensure the safety of the Sudanese people and spare the country from further violence”.

Perthes and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Sudan, Ali bin Hassan Jafar, were leading communications with al-Burhan, the country’s top military official, and Dagalo to engage in dialogue to resolve their dispute, an official said. the UN who requested anonymity to discuss deliberations.

International powers Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have called on those fighting in Sudan to show restraint and work for a political solution in the country.

US Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey wrote online that he is “currently sheltering in place with the Embassy team, as Sudanese in Khartoum and elsewhere are doing.” He urged both sides to cease fire.

“The escalation of tensions within the military component to direct the fighting is extremely dangerous,” Godfrey wrote. “I urgently call on senior military officials to stop the fighting.”

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