Sudan's RSF captures Wad Madani as up to 300,000 flee violence

Relative ease with which city fell highlights national army's vulnerability

Displaced people fleeing Wad Madani in Sudan's Al Gezira state arrive in Gedaref on Sunday. AFP
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The central Sudanese city of Wad Madani has fallen to the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group announced on Tuesday, opening a new front in its eight-month war with the national army.

The Sudanese army indirectly confirmed the loss of the city, saying in a statement it has opened an inquiry into the "circumstances and reasons" behind the withdrawal of the local garrison from the city.

Residents of the city said fighters from the paramilitary group, backed by all-terrain pickup trucks fitted with heavy machineguns, were at the centre of Wad Madani, about 180km south of the capital Khartoum.

Videos posted online by RSF fighters purported to show them inside the city.

“It's a glorious and historic day,” declared RSF commander Gen Mohamed Dagalo in a statement on Tuesday.

He said the capture of the city was an act of self-defence, claiming it was designed to pre-empt a major offensive on the paramilitary's positions in Khartoum.

Gen Dagalo also sought to reassure Wad Madani's residents, saying his men would protect “all citizens along with their money and honour” and that his fighters had been instructed not to harm civilians or damage property.

Wad Madani is the capital of Al Gezira state, Sudan's breadbasket and gateway to the east and south of the vast Afro-Arab country.

Its capture is a serious blow to the embattled army as it tries to contain the loss of territory to the RSF, already in virtually complete control of the capital and a string of cities in the west.

Compounding the country's humanitarian crisis, the arrival of the RSF in Al Gezira state has forced up to 300,000 people to leave the fertile region to escape the fighting, according to the International Migration Organisation.

The exodus was prompted largely by widespread fears of a repeat of the RSF's looting, arbitrary arrests and sexual assaults it is accused of committing in the capital.

Since Friday, residents could be seen fleeing in vehicles carrying their belongings on roads outside the state, leaving behind a rapidly emptying city and the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Jubilant RSF fighters can be seen in the videos posted online, celebrating the capture of the city and speaking to the camera near the city's landmarks.

One video showed an RSF officer sitting on the desk of the commander of the army's 1st Infantry Division, the military unit with the remit of protecting the city and whose withdrawal is being investigated by the army.

Another video showed an RSF fighter posing with a black SUV he identified as the official car of the division commander.

The National was unable to verify the authenticity of these videos.

Local pro-democracy activists said the RSF had set up checkpoints throughout the city and were looting homes and cars, with no army or police in sight.

Wad Madani's usually bustling outdoor food market has been closed since Friday, as are scores of shops. Residents still in the city are staying in their homes. Some families wishing to leave have posted online appeals for a car ride out of the city.

Since the start of the war in April, Wad Madani has been a favoured destination for people fleeing Khartoum. The city has also been a major centre for aid.

The latest wave of displacement from Wad Madani adds to the estimated six million people who have fled their homes in the past eight months.

More than one million of those left the country. About 500,000 of the displaced found refuge in Al Gezira state, including nearly 60,000 who resettled in Wad Madani.

The US, which on Sunday urged the RSF not to attack Wad Madani, has led mediation efforts with Saudi Arabia to broker a ceasefire in Sudan.

They were able to produce a series of ceasefires in the early days of the war, none of which lasted.

The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development group said last week that the army and the RSF had agreed to a ceasefire, but both sides quickly distanced themselves from the claim.

The relative ease with which Wad Madani fell to the RSF underlines the vulnerability of an army reportedly split between factions loyal to the former regime of dictator Omar Al Bashir and those who support the dismantlement of his regime.

The army is also believed to be short on personnel, prompting repeated calls for volunteers to join the fight.

The army has also been relying, with limited success, on artillery and air strikes, causing thousands of civilian deaths and failing to dislodge RSF fighters embedded in Khartoum's residential districts.

“This is treason. The army practically handed Wad Madani to the Rapid Support Forces,” said Mohammed Abul Tayeb, a resident of the city. “We have fed the whole of Sudan for 70 years and the army did not defend us.”

The Sudan conflict, the latest in a series of civil wars dating back to the 1950s, is essentially a struggle for political and military superiority between army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and his one-time ally Gen Dagalo.

The pair claim to be fighting to defend the Sudanese people and restore the nation's democratic transition, which they upended when they jointly seized power in a 2021 coup that toppled a civilian-led government.

Gen Dagalo had more to say about the RSF's war mission in Tuesday's statement.

“This glorious victory will not distract us from our actual goal: to return Sudan to the path of democratic transition.” he said.

The RSF, he added, is prepared to empower genuine political forces to set up a civilian-led transitional government to build a “new state” in which the military is removed from politics.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 7:55 PM