KHARTOUM: Gunfire ripped through residential neighbourhoods of Sudan’s capital Khartoum at the start of Eid Al Fitr on Friday, after the army deployed on foot for the first time in its almost week-long fight with a paramilitary force.
Soldiers and gunmen from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) shot at each other in neighbourhoods across the city, including during the call for special early morning Eid prayers.
Gunfire crackled without pause all day, punctuated by the thud of artillery and air strikes. Drone footage showed multiple plumes of smoke across Khartoum and its Nile sister cities, together one of Africa’s biggest urban areas.
In his first speech since the conflict engulfed Sudan nearly a week ago, army chief Gen. Abdul Fattah Al Burhan pledged the military would prevail and secure the vast African nation's “safe transition to civilian rule.”
“We are confident that we will overcome this ordeal with our training, wisdom and strength,” Burhan said, vowing to preserve “the security and unity of the state.”
The Sudanese military a day earlier ruled out negotiations with the RSF , saying it would only accept its surrender. The military claimed Friday it had moved past the phase of defending its positions and was now clearing RSF positions from around Khartoum. The military has appeared to have the upper hand, with its monopoly on air power, but it was impossible to confirm its claims of advances.
The fighting has killed hundreds, mainly in the capital and the west of Sudan, tipping the continent’s third largest country - where about a quarter of people already relied on food aid - into a humanitarian disaster.
An international push for a temporary truce to allow civilians to reach safety and visit family over the three day holiday has so far failed. With the airport caught in the fighting and the skies unsafe, nations including the United States, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Spain have been unable to evacuate embassy staff.
In Washington, the White House said no decision yet had been made to evacuate American diplomatic personnel but the US is preparing for such an eventuality if it becomes necessary.
5 aid workers killed
At least five aid workers have been killed, including three from the World Food Programme, which has since suspended its Sudan operation - one of the largest food aid missions in the world.
A worker at the International Organization for Migration was killed in crossfire in the city of El Obeid on Friday.
Instead of a ceasefire, the army has pressed forward, fighting the RSF on the ground after having previously stuck largely to air strikes and artillery shelling across the capital since the power struggle erupted last weekend.
In a statement, the army said it had begun “the gradual cleaning of hotbeds of rebel groups around the capital”.
Khartoum resident Mohammad Saber Turaby, 27, had wanted to visit his parents 80 km (50 miles) from the city for Eid.
“Every time I try to leave the house, there are clashes, he said. “There was shelling last night and now there is presence of army forces on the ground.” Army troops brandishing semi-automatic weapons were greeted by cheers on one street, a video released by the military on Friday showed. Reuters verified the location of the video, in the north of the city, but could verify when it was filmed.
Fighting extended down Medani Street, the main highway leading from Khartoum to Gezira state being used by those fleeing, as the RSF appeared to withdraw towards rural villages on the outskirts of Khartoum, eyewitnesses told Reuters.
More than 400 killed
The World Health Organization said at least 413 people have already been killed and thousands injured in the conflict, with hospitals under attack and up to 20,000 people fleeing into neighbouring Chad.
Thousands of people braved the fighting to flee Khartoum on Friday, witnesses said, moving south to Al Gezira state, or north to River Nile state, with some seeking to go onward to Egypt.
“An increasing number of people are running out of food, water, and power, including in Khartoum,” the UN humanitarian office said in an update.
Sudan borders seven countries and sits between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Africa’s volatile Sahel region. The hostilities risk fanning regional tensions.
The violence was triggered by disagreement over an internationally backed plan to form a new civilian government four years after the fall of autocrat Omar Al Bashir to mass protests, and two years after a military coup.
Both sides accuse the other of thwarting the transition.
The fighting on Friday undermined efforts by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to win a truce, despite a flurry of calls to Burhan from US, Qatari, and Saudi foreign ministers, the Turkish president, and other world leaders on Thursday.
The RSF expressed willingness to allow a lull in the fighting, and condemned the military for what it said was new assaults.
Beyond the capital, the two sides are fighting in the western region of Darfur, where a partial peace deal was signed in 2020 in a long-running conflict that led to international war crimes charges against Bashir.
In El Fasher in North Darfur, a maternity hospital repurposed to treat casualties from fighting was overwhelmed and rapidly running out of supplies, said Cyrus Paye, coordinator for aid group MSF. All other hospitals in the city were closed.
Most of the 279 wounded patients the hospital received since Saturday were civilians hit by stray bullets, many of them children, and 44 have died, he said.
Another doctors’ group said at least 26 people were killed in El Obeid city, west of Khartoum, on Thursday. Witnesses described widespread looting.
Burhan told Al Jazeera he would support a truce on condition it allowed citizens to move freely, which he said the RSF had prevented.