Sudan's army and paramilitary fight street battles in Khartoum amid conflicting claims

The violence has plunged the Sudanese capital into deadly chaos

Smoke rises above buildings near Khartoum airport in Sudan, amid clashes between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. AFP
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Sudan's army and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces are fighting fierce street battles in the capital Khartoum, turning the city of more than six million people into a deadly battlefield.

Tanks, artillery, rocket launchers were being used, but both sides made conflicting reports about the progress of the fighting, which could not immediately be verified.

The unrest forced the closure of Khartoum's international airport. The national carriers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia — Saudia and EgyptAir — said they suspended flights to and from Khartoum. Emirates and Flydubai also halted flights to the country.

The RSF said it has seized Khartoum's Nile-side Republican Palace, the country's seat of power, as well as the airport. The military denied the claim and said it remained in control of the army headquarters in central Khartoum and the airport. It made no mention of the palace.

Residents said heated battles were raging around the airport area. Walls of houses in the nearby district of Burry were shaking and windows were blown out. Artillery shells landed in some residential areas in Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman, they said.

The military warned residents that they would feel the ground shaking and hear the deafening thud of artillery fire. “But don't be worried, our co-ordinates are accurate.”

Army chief and military ruler Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan told Qatar-based Al Jazeera network that “things are under control”.

“No one has been able to enter the military headquarters,” he said.

Separately he was shown, in a video posted online, seated in what appeared to be a control room next to two other generals. The room had a multitude of television screens and several telephones.

His adversary, RSF commander Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, also spoke to Al Jazeera, calling Gen Al Burhan a “war criminal” and claiming that the fighting was forced upon him and his men.

Although the scene of some dozen military coups since independence in 1956, Khartoum had not before seen street battles on the scale that unfolded on Saturday. The fighting took place as efforts to restore the country's democratic transition, upended by a 2021 military takeover, was deadlocked over the integration of the RSF into the armed forces as part of proposed reforms.

Saturday's fighting appeared to be the result of a takeover attempt by the RSF.

Earlier, the RSF said one of its major bases in the capital came under a “brutal” attack by army troops who seized the installation in the Soba area just south of Khartoum. It later said the army had launched simultaneous attacks on the paramilitary's bases in the capital and several other cities.

“The RSF forces defended themselves and responded to the attacking forces and inflicted heavy casualties on them,” it said.

The military rejected the RSF's version of events, in a post on its Facebook page, saying the paramilitary force's claim of an attack on the Soba base was intended to “cover its mutinous conduct”.

Gen Al Burhan said the RSF attacked his residence and the military headquarters in Khartoum. But Gen Dagalo said the military ruler was in hiding.

The RSF also claimed that its men had seized the airport in the northern city of Merowe and an adjacent military base. It said it was in control of the airport in the western city of Al Obeid. There were reports of fighting between the two sides in the Darfur cities of Nyala and El Fashir.

The military said the air force was conducting operations against the RSF. Footage posted online showed a lone fighter jet in the sky above Khartoum. The authenticity of the clip could not be independently verified.

Saturday's clashes came two days after the army said the recent redeployment and mobilisation by the RSF in Khartoum and other major cities posed a danger to national security and constituted a breach of the law and the paramilitary force's own regulations.

The army said the RSF moves could lead to clashes that would “destroy” the country.

The military and the RSF are at odds over plans to integrate the paramilitary force into the regular army, as part of a settlement to end the country's long-running political crisis. Gen Dagalo has said he wanted to see a “single army” in Sudan, but he is known to be reluctant to assimilate the RSF in the armed forces.

Footage shared on social media showed columns of black smoke rising from several areas in Khartoum on Saturday, with army vehicles stationed at major intersections. There were also clips showing tanks rushing across the streets, rocket launchers firing and civilian cars ablaze.

One video showed troops, thought to be from a military intelligence unit, arriving at Khartoum airport in armoured vehicles and fanning out on the tarmac. The airport has been closed, according to witnesses.

More footage posted online showed passengers at the airport cowering on the floor as gunfire is heard in the background. Other footage purported to show members of the RSF capturing army troops on the streets, frisking and hitting them with rifle butts.

The military said members of the RSF sneaked into Khartoum airport earlier on Saturday and torched several civilian aircraft, including a Saudia aircraft. The airline later said one of its aircraft in Khartoum was involved in an “accident.”

The Sudanese Doctors' Union told Reuters that at least 25 people were killed and 183 injured, while the actual death toll could be much higher given the scale of the fighting. The union also appealed to humanitarian organisations to help evacuate the wounded in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. It did not define how many were civilian casualties.

Khartoum residents had earlier said soldiers had sealed off bridges over the Nile in the capital and beefed up defences around the army headquarters and the Republican Palace.

US Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey tweeted that he had arrived late the previous night in Khartoum "and woke up to the deeply disturbing sounds of gunfire and fighting”.

“I am currently sheltering in place with the embassy team, as Sudanese throughout Khartoum and elsewhere are doing,” he said.

“I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting.”

On Saturday the UAE called on all involved in the unrest in Sudan to exercise restraint, and to de-escalate and work towards ending this crisis through dialogue, state news agency Wam reported.

“The UAE Embassy in Khartoum is following with great concern the developments in Sudan and has reaffirmed the UAE’s position on the importance of de-escalation, and working towards finding a peaceful solution to the crisis between the concerned parties,” it said.

“Furthermore, the embassy stresses the importance of efforts aimed at supporting the political process and achieving national consensus towards the formation of a government.”

Egypt, Sudan's powerful neighbour to the north, said it was deeply concerned by the fighting and called on the warring parties to cease hostilities.

The RSF emerged from militias that fought on the government side in the conflict that broke out in Darfur 20 years ago. The militias were accused at the time of atrocities against civilians in the war that left 300,000 dead and displaced another 2.5 million.

It was legitimised in 2013 and is now thought to be a force of about 100,000 men, many of them deployed in Khartoum since 2019. The paramilitary expanded in recent years, independently procuring arms abroad and hiring foreign military advisers. It has vast economic interests, including goldmines.

Gen Dagalo is also known to enjoy the support of Russia and several regional powerhouses.

Gen Al Burhan and Gen Dagalo jointly staged a military takeover in October 2021. The two generals also co-operated in removing former dictator Omar Al Bashir from power in 2019.

However, differences surfaced late last year with Gen Dagalo saying the takeover was a mistake and served as a gateway for supporters of Al Bashir to make a political comeback. Gen Al Burhan dismissed the claim.

Both men are thought to have political ambitions.

Updated: April 15, 2023, 8:54 PM