Deadly fighting rocks Sudan as regular army battles RSF paramilitaries

Deadly fighting rocks Sudan as regular army battles RSF paramilitaries
Air strikes and artillery exchanges rocked Khartoum on Saturday after weeks of deepening tensions between military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his number two, paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
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The two sides traded blame for starting Saturday's fighting in the Sudanese capital [AFP via Getty]

Air strikes and artillery exchanges rocked Khartoum Saturday as paramilitaries and the regular army traded attacks on each other's bases, days after the army warned the country was at a "dangerous" turning point.

The paramilitaries said they were in control of the presidential place as well as Khartoum airport, claims denied by the army, as civilian leaders called for an immediate ceasefire to prevent the country's "total collapse".

The doctors' union said three civilians had been killed, including at Khartoum airport and in North Kordofan state, and at least nine others wounded.

The eruption of violence came after weeks of deepening tensions between military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his number two, paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, over the planned integration of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the regular army.

The army said it had carried out air strikes against RSF bases in Khartoum. "The Sudanese air force destroyed Tiba and Soba camps," it said in a statement.

The RSF said its forces had taken control of Khartoum airport, after witnesses reported seeing truckloads of fighters entering the airport compound, as well as the presidential palace and other key sites.

Its claims were quickly denied by the army, who said the airport and other bases remain under their "full control", publishing a photograph of black smoke billowing from what it said was the RSF headquarters.

The army also accused the paramilitaries of burning civilian airliners at the airport, and Saudi flag carrier Saudia said it had suspended all flights to and from Sudan until further notice after one of its Airbus A330 planes "was involved in an accident".

RSF chief Dagalo vowed no let-up. "We will not stop fighting until we capture all the army bases and the honourable members of the armed forces join us," he told Al Jazeera.

The two sides traded blame for starting the fighting.

"The Rapid Support Forces were surprised Saturday with a large force from the army entering camps in Soba in Khartoum and laying siege to paramilitaries there," the RSF said in a statement.

It said a "sweeping attack with all kinds of heavy and light weapons" was underway.

The RSF said its fighters had also taken control of the airport in Merowe, north of Khartoum.

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The army blamed the paramilitaries for the heavy fighting.

"Fighters from the Rapid Support Forces attacked several army camps in Khartoum and elsewhere around Sudan," army spokesman Brigadier General Nabil Abdallah told AFP.

"Clashes are ongoing and the army is carrying out its duty to safeguard the country."

Troops blocked off the bridges across the Nile linking Khartoum with its sister cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North. They also sealed off the road to the presidential palace.

Military leader Burhan has been at loggerheads with his number two, the RSF commander, over talks to finalise a deal to return the country to civilian rule and end the crisis sparked by their 2021 coup.

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A plan to integrate the RSF into the regular army is one of the key points of contention, analysts have said.

Eleventh-hour haggling between the two men over the details has twice forced postponement of the signing of an agreement with civilian factions setting out a roadmap for the transition.

In its statement Thursday, the regular army said it was "sounding the alarm as the country is at a dangerous historical turning point".

"The risks are increasing as the RSF command mobilised and spread forces in the capital and other cities," the army said.

It said the deployment, which "took place without the approval of, or even just coordination with, the armed forces command" has "exacerbated security risks and increased tensions among security forces".

The RSF defended its deployment, saying it works in coordination with the regular army and its fighters "move throughout the country to achieve security and stability".

Created in 2013, the RSF emerged from the Janjaweed militia that then-president Omar al-Bashir unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in the western Darfur region a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.

In recent months, Dagalo has said the 2021 coup was a "mistake" that failed to bring about change in Sudan and reinvigorated remnants of Bashir's regime, which was ousted by the army in 2019 following months of mass protests.

Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under Bashir's three-decade rule, maintained that the coup was "necessary" to bring more groups into the political process.