Sudan: Fighters open 'humanitarian corridor' as death toll mounts

Sudan: Fighters open 'humanitarian corridor' as death toll mounts
The heads of Sudan's army and the country's main paramilitary group both agreed to a three-hour humanitarian pause in their fighting on Sunday proposed by the United Nations, the UN mission in Sudan said.
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Both the army and the Rapid Support Forces said in statements that they had agreed to the pause [source: Getty]

Sudan's army and rival paramilitaries on Sunday began an hours-long humanitarian pause on the second day of urban battles that killed at least 56 civilians and three UN staff.

The raging battles between the powerful armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) sparked an international outcry and regional concern. Neighbours Egypt and Chad closed their borders with Sudan.

After the killing of the three World Food Programme workers the agency said it was suspending operations in the impoverished country.

Deafening explosions and intense gunfire rattled buildings in the capital Khartoum's densely-populated northern and southern suburbs as tanks rumbled on the streets and fighter jets roared overhead, witnesses said.

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Violence erupted early Saturday after weeks of power struggles between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo who heads the heavily-armed RSF.

Each accused the other of starting the fight.

The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors reported 56 civilians killed as well as "tens of deaths" among security forces, and around 600 wounded.

Late Sunday afternoon the army said they had "agreed to a United Nations proposal to open safe passage for humanitarian cases", including the evacuation of wounded, for three hours from 1400 GMT.

RSF confirmed the measure, though they said it would last four hours, and both sides maintained their right to "respond in the event of transgressions" from the other side.

One hour into the agreed pause, heavy gunfire could still be heard in central Khartoum near the airport, and dense black smoke billowed from the surrounding area.

"The gunfire and explosions are incessant," said Ahmed Hamid, 34, from a northern Khartoum suburb.

"The situation is very worrying and it doesn't seem like it will calm any time soon," said Ahmed Seif, another Khartoum resident.

Daglo's RSF say they have seized the presidential palace, Khartoum airport and other strategic locations, but the army insist they are still in control.

Footage obtained by AFP showed heavy smoke billowing from a building near the army headquarters in Khartoum, with the military saying a building had "caught fire" but that it had been contained.

On Sunday, the stench of gunpowder wafted through Khartoum's streets, deserted except for soldiers as frightened civilians sheltered inside their homes.

Medics pleaded for safe corridors for ambulances and a ceasefire to treat the victims because the streets were too dangerous for transporting casualties to hospital.

Fighting also erupted in the western Darfur region and in the eastern border state of Kassala, where witness Hussein Saleh said the army had fired artillery at a paramilitary camp.

The UN said its WFP employees had been killed Saturday in clashes in North Darfur and announced a "temporary halt to all operations in Sudan".

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned that an escalation in the fighting would "further aggravate the already precarious humanitarian situation".

The UN says one-third of Sudan's population need humanitarian aid.

UN Special Representative Volker Perthes condemned the killings and said he was also "appalled by reports of projectiles hitting UN and other humanitarian premises in several locations in Darfur".

WFP said an aircraft managed by the organisation "was also significantly damaged" at Khartoum airport.

"We cannot do our lifesaving work if the safety and security of our teams and partners is not guaranteed," WFP head Cindy McCain said.

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

The RSF's planned integration into the regular army was a key element of talks to finalise a deal that would return the country to civilian rule and end the political-economic crisis sparked by the military's 2021 coup.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the fighting "threatens the security and safety of Sudanese civilians".

Similar appeals came from Britain, China, the European Union and Russia, while Pope Francis said he was following the events "with concern" and urged dialogue.

After a meeting on the situation in Sudan, the African Union said a senior official would "immediately" travel there on a ceasefire mission.

But the two generals appear in no mood for talks. In an interview with Sky News Arabia, Daglo, also known as Hemeti, said, "Burhan the criminal must surrender".

The army declared Daglo a "wanted criminal" and the RSF a "rebel militia".

There "will be no negotiations or talks until the dissolution" of the group, it said.

The October 2021 coup triggered international aid cuts and sparked near-weekly protests met by a deadly crackdown.

Burhan, who rose through the ranks under the three-decade rule of now jailed general Bashir, has said the coup was "necessary" to include more factions into politics.

Daglo later called the coup a "mistake" that failed to bring about change and reinvigorated remnants of Bashir's regime ousted by the army in 2019 following mass protests.