Imminent RSF attack on key Sudan city sparks fears of wider bloodshed

Al Fasher in North Darfur state has been under paramilitary siege for weeks, as army airdrops supplies to defending garrison

Goods move across the border between Sudan and Chad, where hundreds of thousands of Sudanese from the Darfur region have taken refuge from the war in their country. Getty Images
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A battle for control of a key city in Sudan’s Darfur region between the army and a rival paramilitary force appears imminent, with both sides looking to tip the balance of the ruinous year-long civil war.

Al Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, is not only the largest and most important city in the entire Darfur region, but also the only one of Darfur’s five state capitals not controlled by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The other four were seized by the RSF last year.

Its strategic location has for years made it a hub for aid groups operating in western Sudan, providing a key transit stop for aid shipments from neighbouring Chad or Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

“Al Fasher is seen in Sudan as the capital of the entire Darfur region, not just North Darfur,” activist Abdul Rahim Al Sheikh said. “Whoever controls Al Fasher controls Darfur.”

Fighting broke out last April between the national army, headed by Sudan's de facto leader Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, and the RSF, led by his former deputy Mohamed Dagalo.

The war has killed tens of thousands of people, forced more than 8.5 million people to flee their homes and created circumstances for a famine, with 25 million people now in need of life-saving assistance.

RSF fighters have for weeks been laying siege to Al Fasher as a prelude to storming and capturing the city to cement control of the Darfur region.

Army aircraft, meanwhile, have continued to drop food, weapons and ammunition to the garrison inside the city, which is believed to number in the thousands and include fighters from allied rebel groups and volunteers.

A series of ceasefires brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia during the war's early days collapsed shortly after they came into force or were loosely observed.

The outbreak of the war followed months of tension between the two rival generals over details of Sudan’s democratic transition, especially the mandate of the army and associated paramilitaries in a civilian-led Sudan.

The RSF scored a series of battlefield victories in the early days of the war, capturing most of the capital and cities west and south of Khartoum.

In December, it dealt a body blow to the army when it captured Wad Madani, capital of Al Jazeera region – Sudan’s breadbasket – south of the capital.

However, the army has made some symbolically significant gains in recent months, regaining territory in Omdurman across the Nile from Khartoum and halting RSF advances in Al Jazeera and neighbouring regions.

Sudan’s air force has been bombarding RSF positions around Al Fasher and in nearby towns, with the paramilitary claiming the air strikes are killing civilians and livestock, the livelihood of many in Darfur, not its fighters.

“It may at the end prove difficult for the RSF to conquer Al Fasher, given the large number of troops and allied militiamen stationed inside,” said Ammar Awad, a Sudanese expert on Darfur.

“The RSF will also find the locals unwelcoming, unlike in some other Darfur cities where it found popular sympathy.”

'Deep concern'

On Saturday, the UN Security Council expressed its "deep concern" over an imminent RSF attack on Al Fasher.

In a statement, members “called on the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces to end the build-up of military forces and to take steps to de-escalate the situation".

Senior UN officials also warned the Security Council last week that about 800,000 people in Al Fasher were in “extreme and immediate danger" as worsening violence threatens to "unleash bloody intercommunal strife throughout Darfur".

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also called on the warring parties to refrain from fighting in Al Fasher and surrounding areas.

The UN humanitarian office said escalating tensions and clashes around Al Fasher in the past two weeks have displaced 40,000 people and caused an unspecified number of civilian casualties.

“The security situation has effectively cut off humanitarian access to Al Fasher,” said the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).

Darfur is the birthplace of the RSF’s forerunner, the Janjaweed militia, and its leader Gen Dagalo, a one-time cattle trader who rose to national prominence during the 29-year rule of former dictator Omar Al Bashir.

The Janjaweed joined the government’s forces during the Darfur civil war in the 2000s, fighting ethnic African rebels seeking an end to perceived discrimination by the Muslim and Arabised ruling elite in Khartoum.

The Arab-led Janjaweed has been accused of war crimes against ethnic African civilians during that war.

War crimes took place last summer in Darfur, when the RSF and allied militiamen killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of members of the ethnic African Masalit tribe in El Geneina, near the border with Chad.

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan said in late January there were grounds to believe both sides in the current war may be committing war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Darfur.

Al Bashir, ousted in a popular uprising in 2019, is wanted by the ICC on charges of genocide and other crimes during the conflict in Darfur.

Updated: April 28, 2024, 2:26 PM