NAIROBI — Airstrikes slammed into neighborhoods in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and three planes were raked with gunfire or set aflame in the main airport as the military and a heavily armed paramilitary force battled in the streets on Saturday, pushing the troubled Horn of Africa nation to the cusp of a civil war.
The violence in the nation of 46 million follows years of ratcheting tensions between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a major paramilitary group led by Vice President Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — universally referred to as Hemedti — and the military, headed by the president, Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan.
Shooting broke out around 9 a.m., residents said, and quickly escalated as artillery, armored vehicles and then fighter jets were deployed. Doctors in the capital urgently appealed for surgeons and blood supplies as wounded people poured into hospitals. Nearly 400 people were injured and at least 27 killed, mostly in Khartoum, according to an internal U.N. document. It did not include three U.N. workers reported killed in Darfur.
The RSF claimed it had taken control of sites including the presidential palace, Khartoum International Airport and the airport in Merowe, north of the capital. The Sudanese armed forces dismissed RSF statements as “lies.” Both sides blamed the other for attacking first.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Hemedti described Burhan as “a criminal and a liar who will destroy Sudan” and pledged to “hand him and his associates over to face justice.” He said 100 military officers and thousands of soldiers had defected to him, without providing evidence.
Burhan, during his own Al Jazeera interview, said the RSF attacked the seat of the Sovereignty Council and his home that morning and harassed members of the army in an area south of the capital. He also said the RSF had set fire to some aircraft in Khartoum Airport, but that the army had repulsed them and still controlled the army’s general command center, key military facilities and the Republican Palace. He also did not provide evidence.
The Sudanese air force is conducting strikes against RSF positions, the military said. Khartoum residents confirmed seeing military jets and helicopters in the skies.
Tensions have spiked this year between Sudan’s army and the RSF, after disagreements regarding a December deal on power sharing and a timeline to dissolve paramilitary forces as part of a transition to civilian rule.
The violence dates to the time of former president Omar al-Bashir, who ruled for 30 years and was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. He had tried to stave off growing opposition by encouraging the growth of the RSF, a militia that grew out of the Janjaweed in the western region of Darfur. The Janjaweed were blamed for rapes, burning villages and mass killings.
A spiraling cycle of civilian protests and bloody crackdowns toppled Bashir in 2019, ushering in a brief euphoria and civilian government before the military and RSF seized power in a 2021 coup. Diplomatically isolated and economically crippled, the two sides agreed late last year to turn over power over to a civilian-led government. But the deal left key problems unresolved, said Kholood Khair, founding director of the Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory.
“The framework agreement codified the tensions between them,” she said. “It promoted Hemedti from Burhan’s deputy to his equal. … It’s made it difficult for Burhan to back this deal. His forces put inordinate pressure on him not to back the final deal, which was due April 1.”
The alliance was always uneasy, she said. “They have different foreign policies, allies and income streams and different visions on how to consolidate the coup they led together.”
The fighting has wider regional implications: Hemedti is linked to Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and returned from a trip to Moscow last year pledging deeper ties with Russia and discussing Russia opening a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Burhan has support from neighboring Egypt, a major military power and the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Unconfirmed footage on social media appeared to show some Egyptian soldiers at Merowe airport under RSF control. Hemedti told Sky News Arabia that his forces were ready to facilitate their safe return to Egypt. The Egyptian army said in a statement their forces are in Sudan for joint training.
Even if the fighting stops in Khartoum, Khair said, it might continue elsewhere in the country.
“Sudan is on the precipice of civil war,” warned Alan Boswell, director for the Horn of Africa for the International Crisis Group. “This is the double-headed monster that seized power after Bashir. Now the two heads have turned on each other.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted: “We urge all actors to stop the violence immediately and avoid further escalations or troop mobilizations and continue talks.”
Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he had confirmed fighting in the cities of Merowe, Khartoum, El Obeid and the towns of Al Fashir and Nyala in Darfur.
“I very seriously take the announcement made by the RSF that they are going after every military base in the country,” he said. “This is a fight to the finish.”
Both sides see the other as an existential threat, he said, and the international community had little leverage since it had already isolated Sudan, whose battered economy desperately needs debt relief.
“Neither Burhan or Hemedti is answering their phones,” he said, noting that regional countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates might take the lead.
It’s not even clear if Burhan fully controls the army, he said, since there’s significant hard-line Islamist elements still within it from Bashir’s time. Although both sides had been building up forces for weeks, the fact that phone and internet services were still working and that it took hours to get military planes into the air meant the fighting could have been triggered by a miscalculation, he said.
Justyna Gudzowska, director of illicit finance policy at the rights group the Sentry, said most sanctions on Sudan were lifted in 2017 and those that remained were Darfur-specific. President Biden could issue fresh sanctions through an executive order against any commanders whose forces engaged in atrocities or serious human rights abuses, she said.
Witnesses, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons, reported seeing armored vehicles and plumes of smoke rising in Khartoum on Saturday morning. Mothers dashed to get children from school, with some unable to return home because of gunfire and armed men blocking bridges, said an activist citing eyewitness reports from their network.
One of the planes damaged at the airport belonged to the United Nations, footage showed, while another belonged to Saudi Arabia’s national airline. It was hit by gunfire as it prepared to depart to Riyadh with guests and crew onboard, the airline said.
Two civilians had been killed at the airport, the Preliminary Committee of the Sudan Doctors’ Trade Union wrote on Twitter. Three Sudanese staff for the United Nations World Food Program were shot dead in Kabkabiya, North Darfur, when the RSF overran a military base where they were forced to shelter, said a Sudan-based United Nations official. » …