May 17, 2023 | By Khalid Abdelaziz |
DUBAI (Reuters) – Air strikes and artillery fire intensified sharply across Sudan’s capital on Tuesday, residents said, as the army sought to defend its bases from paramilitary rivals it has been fighting for more than a month.
The air strikes, explosions and clashes could be heard in the south of Khartoum, and there was heavy shelling across the River Nile in parts of the adjoining cities of Bahri and Omdurman, witnesses said.
The conflict between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has triggered unrest elsewhere in Sudan, especially in the western region of Darfur, but is concentrated in Khartoum.
It has caused a humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilise the region, displacing more than 700,000 people inside Sudan and forcing about 200,000 to flee into neighbouring countries.
Those who have remained in the capital are struggling to survive as food supplies dwindle, health services collapse and lawlessness spreads.
The IFRC humanitarian network said 9 million people were living in close proximity to battles and under severe hardship, and cited reports of increased sexual violence against people on the move as it launched a $33 million fundraising appeal.
Officials have recorded 676 deaths and more than 5,500 injuries, but the real toll is expected to be far higher with many reports of bodies left in the streets and people struggling to bury the dead.
“The situation is unbearable. We left our house to go to a neighbour’s house in Khartoum, escaping from the war, but the bombardment follows us wherever we go,” said Ayman Hassan, a 32-year-old Khartoum resident.
“We don’t know what the citizens did to deserve a war in the middle of the houses.”
Fighting has surged both in Khartoum and in Geneina, capital of West Darfur, since the two warring parties began talks in Jeddah brokered by Saudi Arabia and the United States more than a week ago.
The talks have produced a statement of principles on protecting civilians and allowing aid supplies, but mechanisms for humanitarian corridors and agreeing a ceasefire are still being discussed.
Both sides had previously announced several ceasefires, none of which stopped the fighting.
The army has mainly used air strikes and shelling as it seeks to push back RSF forces from positions across Khartoum.
It has accused the RSF of using captured army officers and their families as human shields, something the RSF has denied.
The RSF attacked major military bases in northern Omdurman and southern Khartoum on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to prevent the army from deploying heavy weaponry and fighter jets, residents and witnesses said.
The RSF said it had captured hundreds of army troops in Bahri, releasing footage of rows of seated men in uniform with RSF fighters celebrating around them. Reuters could not immediately verify the claim, which the army denied.
The army has been trying to cut off RSF supply lines and to secure strategic sites including the airport in central Khartoum and the major Al-Jaili oil refinery in Bahri, where fighting flared again on Tuesday.
RSF forces also detained Anas Omer, an outspoken senior member of the ruling party under deposed former leader Omar al-Bashir, from his home in Khartoum, Omer’s son told Reuters.
The RSF has accused the army of working with loyalists of the former regime, a charge the army has denied.
The war began after disputes over plans for the RSF to join the army and the future chain of command under an internationally backed deal for a political transition towards civilian rule and elections.
Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, took the top positions on Sudan’s ruling council following the 2019 overthrow of Bashir during a popular uprising.
They staged a coup two years later as a deadline to hand power to civilians approached, began to mobilise their respective forces as mediators tried to finalise the transition plan.
Both sides courted foreign backing from regional states attracted by Sudan’s mineral and agricultural wealth, and its strategic location between the Sahel and the Gulf.
Most of those fleeing Sudan have headed north to Egypt or west to Chad, which borders Darfur. Others have headed to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, hoping to catch boats to Saudi Arabia.
“We came from war, we lost our husbands, our homes were destroyed,” said Reem, a student camped out in scorching heat in Port Sudan with hundreds of others. “Even if there were peace, where are we going to live if we go back?”
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Geneva and Adam Makary in Cairo; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)