Sudan army battles rebel assault on HQ, fighting thwarts evacuations
KHARTOUM, April 19 (Reuters) - Sudanese troops battled waves of attacks on Wednesday by a rebel paramilitary force trying to seize the army's headquarters, while the failure of U.S.-brokered ceasefire hampered efforts to evacuate foreigners and residents trapped in the capital.
Continuous bombardments and loud blasts could be heard in central Khartoum around the compound housing the army HQand also at the main airport, which has been fiercely contested and put out of action since fighting erupted at the weekend.
Thick smoke billowed into the sky and the streets were largely empty in Khartoum, one of Africa’s largest cities.
Earlier in the week, Sudan’s military ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said he was operating from a presidential guesthouse within the compound. Reuters could not establish whether he remained there on Wednesday.
“The armed forces are responding to a new attack in the vicinity of the General Command, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and destroying a number of combat vehicles,” the army said in a statement.
Violence erupted at the weekend in a power struggle between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the army, At least 270 people have died and 2,600 have been injured, Sudan’s health ministry said, cited by the World Health Organization.
The conflict risks drawing in actors from Sudan’s neighbourhood who have backed different factions, and could also play into competition between Russia and the United States for regional influence.
Gunmen have targeted hospitals and humanitarian workers, with reports of sexual violence against aid workers, the United Nations said. Most hospitals are out of service.
Even before the conflict, around a quarter of Sudan’s population was facing acute hunger. The World Food Programme halted one of its largest global aid operations in the country on Saturday after three of its workers were killed.
Foreign powers including the United States have been pushing for a ceasefire between the army and the RSF to allow residents trapped by the fighting to obtain desperately needed relief and supplies and for evacuations of foreign citizens.
Both sides agreed to a 24-hour pause in hostilities from 6.00 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Tuesday, but firing continued unabated and the army and the RSF issued statements accusing each other of failing to respect the truce.
With Khartoum’s international airport closed and attacks in recent days on diplomats and other targets, including a U.S. convoy of vehicles bearing American flags, evacuations look difficult without a sustained lull in fighting.
The U.S. State Department said the “uncertain security situation” and the closure of the airport meant there were no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation.
Germany halted a mission on Wednesday to evacuate about 150 citizens on three Luftwaffe A400M transport planes, the Spiegel magazine reported, citing unnamed sources.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary said authorities were planning to use a plane from its military Self-Defense Forces to evacuate around 60 Japanese citizens.
One resident on the eastern edges of Khartoum said heavy fighting resumed early on Wednesday.
“We couldn’t sleep, the only quiet was from 3 to 5 a.m.” she said.
The army appeared to be trying to push back RSF forces from the defence ministry compound, which also houses the army headquarters, as well as nearby districts of downtown Khartoum, while cutting off their supply routes within the capital.
Army reinforcements have been brought to Khartoum from elsewhere in Sudan including eastern areas near the border with Ethiopia, witnesses and residents said.
The military controls access to Khartoum, a metropolis of around 5.5 million people, with millions more living in sister cities Omdurman and Bahri that lie across the White and Blue Niles.
It appeared to be trying to besiege the RSF, which still has many fighters deployed in the city’s streets, residents said.
Widespread disruption of power and water supplieshas left residents struggling in the final days of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast between dawn and dusk.
Offices and schools were shut in Khartoumand there have been widespread reports of looting and assault. Long lines formed at bakeries that were still functioning.
“Most goods aren’t available. People are looking for things but they can’t find them,” said one resident in Bahri who gave only his first name, Mohamed.
The fighting, which pits military leader Burhan against RSF chief General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, followed tensions over a plan for the RSF’s integration into the regular military.
Burhan heads a ruling council installed after the 2021 military coup and the 2019 ouster of veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir, while Dagalo – better known as Hemedti – was his deputy on the ruling council.
By Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Nafisa Eltahir; Writing by Aidan Lewis and Frank Jack DanielEditing by Gareth Jones)