Smoke rises from a central neighborhood of Khartoum, Sudan, amid intense fighting between armed forces, April 16, 2023.

Fighting between armed forces in Sudan continues amid warnings of wider regional conflict

The country’s military, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary began fighting on Saturday, following weeks of tensions. Pressure from international and regional players has so far failed to deescalate the conflict.

The World

In the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, residents of Khartoum, Sudan, would normally be relaxing during fasting hours and enjoying the weekend.

Instead, they experienced aerial attacks and gunfire as Sudan’s rival armed forces turned their guns on each other.

The fighting between the country’s military, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemeti,” began on Saturday, following weeks of tensions.

Conflicting reports emerged on Tuesday of a 24-hour ceasefire between the two groups, but fighting continued hours before the ceasefire was purportedly set to begin.

Videos taken by residents show armed tanks rolling down streets, and bullets piercing through glass windows of residential buildings.

“There are clouds, clouds of smoke coming from the middle of Khartoum.”

Khalil Yusuf al-Nour, Khartoum resident

“There are clouds, clouds of smoke coming from the middle of Khartoum,” described Khalil Yusuf al-Nour, a resident of the capital.

“Gunshots, like machine guns, and heavy guns,” he added about what he could hear from inside his home.

This is the deadly showdown that many observers warned could come, with tensions between the two forces continuing to grow since the military’s ousting of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

“Since then, they have been working independently,” said Kholood Khair, founding director of the policy think tank Confluence Advisory in Khartoum.

“They have different foreign policies, different income streams and different sorts of domestic politics policies or ideas about how to consolidate their power grab in 2019, and then the coup in 2021,” she explained.

Both SAF and the RSF have been struggling for power, even as they engaged in negotiations that many hoped would put the country back on track toward civilian-led rule.

The negotiations broke down last week amid disagreements over the details of integrating the RSF into the military.

Both now want to have control of Sudan through court, through having control of Khartoum,” Khair said.

In media appearances since the fighting broke out, both General Burhan and General Hemeti have stated similar messages — that they are the ones protecting the Sudanese people, and that the other is an enemy of the country.

The battle on the streets has also played out on social media, with both sides posting videos purporting to show victories over strategic locations.

“They are trying to convince people that they should back their positions,” Khair said. “I think their biggest miscalculation is that they don’t understand — neither Burhan or Hemeti — understand that the people of Sudan, particularly the people of Khartoum, don’t want either general.”

The fighting has already had a heavy toll. At least 144 civilians have been killed, according to the Sudanese Doctors Central Committee. Over the weekend, the World Food Program also announced that it was suspending operations in the country after three of their aid workers were killed amid clashes in the Darfur region.

The aerial bombardment and heavy artillery has also destroyed major infrastructure, including hospitals and the international airport in Khartoum.

“The gunshots, the bombs, they never stop. They might stop for half an hour, an hour, but you know, they resume again.”

Fadil Mahmood, Khartoum resident

“The gunshots, the bombs, they never stop,” said Khartoum resident Fadil Mahmood, who lives near the airport. “They might stop for half an hour, an hour, but you know, they resume again.”

Mahmood said the conflict is making it harder to observe Ramadan.

Residents of Khartoum are having to make decisions about whether to risk their lives by going out to do simple tasks, like charging their phones or shopping for food, water and medicine.

“The electricity is out here because we are close to the conflict,” Mahmood said. Many shops are also closed. “We have some drinking water. It may last us three days.”

Pressure on both generals from international and regional players has so far failed to deescalate the conflict.

“The endgame for both of them seems to be the total annihilation of the other,” political analyst Khair said. 

Sudan’s former civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok urged the generals on Saturday to stop fighting, warning that a war in Sudan would mean war for the entire region.

Emergency meetings were also held over the weekend by the African Union, the Arab League and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — a key body in the region.

Kenya’s government later announced that IGAD had “resolved” to send the presidents of Kenya, South Sudan and Djibouti “at the earliest possible time” to Sudan for mediation — a decision complicated by the main airport not being operational.

Related: Sudanese protesters demand a ‘purely civilian transitional government’ activist says

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