Wider conflict feared as Sudan’s army and rival force clash

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Fierce fighting has erupted in Sudan’s capital between the military and the country’s powerful paramilitary force, raising fears of a wider conflict in the chaos-stricken country.

A doctors’ group said at least three people have been killed and dozens more were injured.

The clashes between the military and the Rapid Support Forces group (RSF) capped months of heightened tensions between both sides that forced the delay of a deal with political parties to restore the country’s short-lived transition to democracy.

Sudan’s army chief Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan
Sudan’s army chief Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan (AP)

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

Residents described chaotic scenes in Khartoum and Omdurman as firing and explosions rang out in densely populated areas.

“Fire and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor in a public hospital in Omdurman. “All are running and seeking shelter.”

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

Saudi Arabia’s national airline said one of its Airbus A330 aircraft was involved in “an accident”. Video showed the plane on fire on the tarmac.

Another plane also appeared to have caught fire in the attack. Flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 identified it as a SkyUp Airlines Boeing 737. SkyUp is a Kyiv, Ukraine-based airline.

Sudanese military official
A spokesman for the Sudanese Armed Forces Brig Nabil Abdullah reads a statement warning of conflict after the recent deployment of Sudan’s powerful paramilitary in the capital and other cities (SUNA via AP)

The leaders of the armed forces and the RSF, who were partners in the 2021 coup, traded blame over who started the fighting and offered conflicting accounts of who was in control of key installations.

Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan, commander of Sudan’s military, said in a phone interview with Al Jazeera that RSF troops first “harassed” the military south of Khartoum, triggering the clashes.

Gen Burhan accused the RSF of entering Khartoum airport and setting fire to some planes. He also said all strategic facilities including the military’s headquarters and the Republican palace, the seat of Sudan’s presidency, are under his forces’ control.

The clashes come after weeks of escalating tensions between the two forces (AP)

The head of the RSF, Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, accused Gen Burhan of starting the battle by surrounding RSF troops.

“This criminal, he forced this battle upon us,” he said.

Gen Dagalo told Al Jazeera that in “the next few days” it would be over.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that a correspondent for BBC News Arabic in Khartoum, Mohamed Osman, was beaten by a Sudanese soldier.

The broadcaster said the army had stopped Mr Osman’s car while he was en route to his work and that he was taken to army headquarters in Omdurman. While explaining his movements to officers, he was hit in the head from behind by a soldier, the BBC said.

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

US secretary of state Antony Blinken and other top diplomats expressed extreme concern over the outbreak of violence.

Sudan clashes
Smoke is seen rising from a neighborhood in Khartoum, Sudan (AP)

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell; the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat; the Arab League chief, Ahmed Aboul Gheit; and Qatar all called for a ceasefire and for both parties to return to negotiations to settle their dispute.

Former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was ousted in the 2021 coup, warned of a possible regional conflict if the fighting escalates. He urged the leaders of the military and the RSF to immediately cease hostilities.

Current tensions between the military and the paramilitary stem from a disagreement over how the RSF, headed by Gen Dagalo, should be integrated into the military and what authority should oversee the process.

The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement with political groups.

The fighting began at a military base south of Khartoum, with both sides trading accusations of initiating an attack.

Clashes then spread in many areas across the capital, including around the military’s headquarters, the airport and the Republican Palace, the seat of the country’s presidency.

“Khartoum has become a battlefield,” said Tahani Abass, a prominent Sudanese rights advocate who lives close to the military’s headquarters. “The situation is very dire, and we don’t know when it will be ended.”

The RSF alleged in a statement that its forces controlled many strategic places in Khartoum and the northern city of Merowe some 215 miles north-west of Khartoum. The military dismissed the claims as “lies”.

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

Volker Perthes, the UN envoy for Sudan, urged both parties for “an immediate cessation of fighting to ensure the safety of the Sudanese people and to spare the country from further violence”.

Mr Perthes and Saudi Ambassador in Sudan, Ali Bin Hassan Jaffar, were leading communications with Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the country’s top military official, and Gen Dagalo to embark on a dialogue to settle their dispute, UN officials said.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates called on those fighting in Sudan to exercise restraint and work toward a political solution in the county.

Meanwhile, Chad announced that it is closing its land borders with Sudan until further notice because of the fighting.

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