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Three aid workers killed as bloody power struggle erupts in Sudan

Three aid workers killed as bloody power struggle erupts in Sudan
A handout satellite image made available by Maxar Technologies shows smoke billowing over Khartoum, Sudan, 16 April 2023. Heavy gunfire and explosions were reported in Sudan's capital Khartoum on 15 April between the army and a paramilitary group following days of tension centering around the country's proposed transition to civilian rule. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxar Technologies Handout)

At least 59 civilians, including three UN food agency employees, were killed in clashes between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in North Darfur this weekend. 

Khartoum — Sudan’s army appeared to gain the upper hand on Sunday, 16 April, in a bloody power struggle with rival paramilitary forces after blasting its bases with air strikes, witnesses said.

At least 59 civilians have been killed, including three employees of the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

The fighting erupted on Saturday between army units loyal to General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s transitional governing Sovereign Council, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who is deputy head of the council.

It was the first such outbreak since both joined forces to oust veteran Islamist autocrat Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019. It was sparked by a disagreement over the integration of the RSF into the military as part of a transition towards civilian rule.

Burhan and Hemedti both agreed to a three-hour “humanitarian pause” on Sunday between 4pm and 7pm local time proposed by the United Nations.

A Reuters witness in central Khartoum said firing appeared to have subsided initially, but heavy bombardments were reported shortly afterwards. Gunfire could still be heard and plumes of smoke seen in the background of live broadcasts from the Sudanese capital.

Earlier, doctors’ unions had said it was difficult for medics and the sick to get to and from hospitals and had called on the army and RSF to provide safe passage.

The United States, China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UN Security Council, European Union and African Union have appealed for a quick end to the hostilities that threaten to worsen instability in the already volatile wider region.

Efforts by neighbours and regional bodies to end the violence intensified on Sunday. This included an offer by Egypt and South Sudan to mediate between the fighting parties, according to a statement by the Egyptian presidency.

The eruption of fighting over the weekend followed tensions over the RSF’s integration into the military. Discord over the timetable for that has delayed the signing of an internationally backed agreement with political parties on a transition to democracy after a 2021 military coup.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Protests planned as Sudan’s army promises to stick to delayed transition deal

Air strikes

Witnesses and residents said the army had carried out air strikes on RSF barracks and bases, including in Omdurman, which is across the Nile river from the capital Khartoum. It had managed to destroy most of RSF’s facilities.

They said the army had also taken back control of much of Khartoum’s presidential palace from the RSF. Both sides have claimed to control it and other key installations in Khartoum, where heavy artillery and gun battles raged into Sunday.

RSF members remained inside Khartoum international airport besieged by the army but it was holding back from striking them to avoid causing major damage, witnesses said.

“The hour of victory is near,” the army said in a statement on Sunday. “We pray for mercy for the innocent lives taken by this reckless adventure taken by the rebel Rapid Support militia… We will have good news for our patient and proud people soon, God willing.”

But a major problem, witnesses and residents said, was posed by thousands of heavily armed RSF members deployed inside neighbourhoods of Khartoum and other cities, with no authority able to control them.

“We’re scared, we haven’t slept for 24 hours because of the noise and the house shaking. We’re worried about running out of water and food, and medicine for my diabetic father,” said Huda, a young resident in southern Khartoum. “There’s so much false information and everyone is lying. We don’t know when this will end, how it will end.”

Tagreed Abdin, an architect in Khartoum, said the power was out and people were trying to conserve phone batteries. “We can hear air strikes, shelling and gunfire,” she said.

Sudan’s MTN telecommunications company blocked internet services on the orders of the government telecommunications regulator, according to two company officials.

State television cut its transmission on Sunday afternoon, reporters in Khartoum and several cities outside the country said. It was not clear what caused the outage.

UN halts food aid operations

The UN World Food Programme said it had temporarily halted all operations in hunger-stricken areas of Sudan after three Sudanese employees were killed during fighting in North Darfur and a WFP plane was hit during a gun battle at Khartoum airport.

“I … am extremely appalled by reports of projectiles hitting UN and other humanitarian premises, as well as reports of looting of UN and other humanitarian premises in several locations in Darfur,” Volker Perthes, UN special envoy for Sudan and head of its country mission, said in a statement.

A protracted confrontation could plunge Sudan into widespread conflict as it struggles with economic breakdown and tribal violence, derailing efforts to move towards elections.

Energy-rich powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to shape events in Sudan, seeing the transition away from toppled strongman Bashir’s rule as a way to roll back Islamist influence and improve stability in the region.

They have also pursued investments in sectors including agriculture, where Sudan holds vast potential, and ports on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

Caught up in the fighting

Several groups of people reported being stranded by fighting near the presidential palace and military headquarters in Khartoum.

The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors reported at least 56 civilians had been killed and 595 people, including combatants, had been wounded since the fighting erupted.

Scores of military personnel were killed, the doctors’ committee said, without giving a specific number due to a lack of first-hand information from hospitals.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdul had separate phone calls with Burhan and Hemedti and called for an end to military escalation, Saudi state media said on Sunday. The minister affirmed Riyadh’s call for calm.

In a speech to an Arab League meeting on the crisis, Sudan said the Sudanese should be allowed to reach a settlement internally without foreign interference.

In an emergency session, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council also said it strongly rejected any external interference that could complicate the situation in Sudan.

The armed forces said it would not negotiate with the RSF unless the force dissolved. The army told soldiers seconded to the RSF to report to nearby army units, which could deplete RSF ranks if they obey.

Hemedti has called military chief Burhan a “criminal” and a “liar”. Reuters/DM

Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Nafisa Eltahir in Cairo. Writing by Cynthia Osterman. Editing by Daniel Wallis.


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