Sudan's Foreign Ministry on Monday claimed the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and allied militias have killed as many as 4,000 members of the Masalit tribe in Darfur in ethnically motivated attacks in recent days.
The death toll given by the ministry is four times the figure cited on Sunday by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who warned of “another genocide” in Darfur, where a civil war in the 2000s killed up to 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.
Speaking to The National, Youssef El Doma, a Sudanese human rights activist, condemned the attacks on the Masalit community, singling out the RSF, but also saying the army shared responsibility for the enormous civilian suffering.
The Foreign Ministry is part of the administration controlled by the army, which has been fighting the RSF in a ruinous war since mid-April. The fighting has forced nearly six million people to flee their homes, including 1.2 million who crossed to neighbouring nations, mainly Chad, which borders Darfur, as well as Egypt and South Sudan.
The fighting has also created a humanitarian crisis, with the UN now saying half the population of nearly 50 million need assistance.
The war has mostly been centred in Khartoum, the capital, but it has also reignited the long-simmering conflict in Darfur, where the RSF and allied Arab militiamen rampaged last summer, allegedly killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of Masalit tribesmen in the town of El Geneina and forcing tens of thousands to flee across the nearby border into Chad.
The International Criminal Court says it is investigating alleged war crimes in El Geneina last summer.
The Hague-based tribunal has already accused the Janjaweed – now the RSF – of war crimes in the civil war in the 2000s, when it fought on the side of the government against ethnic African rebels. A decade ago, the court indicted former dictator Omar Al Bashir and several of his aides for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The Foreign Ministry said the latest killings took place in Ardamata, a few kilometres north of El Geneina, the provincial capital of West Darfur State.
The statement said RSF fighters and their allies had gone house-to-house in Ardamata in search of Masalit tribesmen to kill. Entire families were killed in their homes and victims included members of the local administration, it added.
The RSF, which claims to be fighting the army to restore the nation's democratic transition, is also accused of widespread looting and sexual assaults in Khartoum, where its fighters have taken over private homes.
The paramilitary has yet to comment on the latest allegation but has in the past denied involvement in the Darfur attacks, blaming tribal violence instead.
“It has been a month since I last heard from my family,” Mr El Domam, the Darfur activist, said on Monday. “They may be dead or stuck in refugee camps in Chad.
“The suffering in Darfur is far greater than the world realises. It's genocide and I can only blame the RSF as well as the army. Darfur has not had a day of peace for more than two decades,” added Mr El Doma, who recently fled Darfur for central Sudan.
News of the latest killings follow a string of RSF victories over the army in Darfur, a mostly desert region the size of France where conflict is rooted in disputes over land, pasture and water but not without a strong racist undertone.
In recent weeks, the RSF has seized El Geneina, Zalingi and Nyala – all in Darfur – after overrunning army garrisons. The paramilitary is already in virtual control of the Sudanese capital, where the army is confined to a series of bases and relies, without much success, on air strikes and artillery to dislodge RSF fighters deployed deep in residential areas.
Mr Borrell cited witness reports that more than 1,000 members of the Masalit community were killed in Ardamata in just over two days last week.
“These latest atrocities are seemingly part of a wider ethnic-cleansing campaign conducted by the RSF with the aim to eradicate the non-Arab Masalit community from West Darfur, and comes on top of the first wave of large violence in June,” said Mr Borrell.
The toll was higher than a previous one of 800 given by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which said 100 shelters in a displaced persons' camp in Ardamata had been razed.
“What is happening is verging on pure evil,” the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Sudan, Clementine Nkweta-Salami, said on Friday, citing reports of young girls being raped in front of their mothers.
She also voiced fears of a repeat of the genocide campaign that gripped Darfur in the early 2000s.
The EU stressed that Sudan's warring sides “have a duty to protect citizens”. It said it was working with the International Criminal Court to document violations “to ensure accountability”.
“The international community cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in Darfur and allow another genocide to happen in this region,” it said.
The days-long attack in Ardamata came after the RSF took over a military base in the town after a brief battle on November 4 against troops there, said Salah Tour, head of the West Darfur branch of the Sudanese Doctors’ Union, an independent agency that monitors violence.
The military withdrew from the base, he said, adding that around two dozen wounded troops fled to Chad.
After seizing the military base, the RSF and their allied Arab militias rampaged through the town, killing non-Arabs inside their homes and torching shelters housing displaced people, Mr Tour said.
The Darfur Bar Association, an advocacy group, also accused RSF fighters of committing “all types of serious violations against defenceless civilians” in Ardamata. It cited an attack on November 6 during which the RSF killed more than 50 people, including a tribal leader and his family.
The US State Department said it was “deeply disturbed by witness reports of serious human rights abuses by the RSF and affiliated militias, including killings in Ardamata and ethnic targeting of the Masalit community leaders and members.
“These horrifying actions once again highlight the RSF’s pattern of abuses in connection with their military offensives,” it said in a statement.