Khartoum: A total of 56 civilians were killed and 595 others were wounded in clashes across Sudan, the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said early on Sunday, a day after fighting broke out between Sudan's military and a government paramilitary force.
Explosions and gunfire rang out on the deserted streets of Khartoum, according to witnesses, after the paramilitaries said they were in control of the presidential place, Khartoum airport and other vital facilities.
The army denied the claims, and in a statement late Saturday, the Sudanese air force urged people to stay indoors as it continued air strikes against bases of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Fighter jets were earlier seen flying overhead.
Windows rattled and apartment buildings shook in many parts of Khartoum during the clashes, according to AFP correspondents, with explosions heard early Sunday.
"The total number of deaths among civilians reached 56," said the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, an independent pro-democracy group of medics, adding there were "tens of deaths" among security forces but they were not included in the new toll early Sunday.
The committee said it had counted around 600 wounded including some among security forces and that many casualties could not be transferred to hospitals due to difficulties in moving during the clashes.
In addition to the Emirates flights, flydubai flights to/from Khartoum have been cancelled from April 15 to 17.
Meanwhile, Air Arabia announced that all flights to Sudan have been suspended indefinitely.
Saudi plane hit by gunfire
Saudi Arabia's flag carrier Saudia said earlier one of its planes, with passengers and crew aboard waiting for departure, was "exposed to gunfire damage".
Bakry, 24, who works in marketing, said Khartoum residents had "never seen anything like" this unrest, which left dark smoke hanging over the capital.
"People were terrified and running back home. The streets emptied very quickly", said Bakry, who gave only a first name.
Weeks of tensions
Violence erupted after weeks of deepening tensions between military leader Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and his deputy, paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, over the planned integration of Daglo's RSF into the regular army.
The integration 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.
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.
World urges calm as fighting rocks
International powers - the United States, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Nations, European Union and African Union - all appealed for an immediate end to the hostilities.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday he had consulted with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and that they had agreed it was essential for the involved parties in Sudan to immediately end hostilities without any preconditions.
After a phone call, the Saudi, US and UAE foreign ministers called for a return to the framework agreement on the transition to democracy, the Saudi state news agency reported.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke with Burhan, Hemedti, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Guterres' spokesperson said.
Political agreement at risk
The clashes follow rising tensions over the RSF's integration into the military. The disagreement has delayed the signing an internationally backed agreement with political parties on a transition to democracy.
A coalition of civilian groups that signed a draft of that agreement in December called on Saturday for an immediate halt to hostilities, to stop Sudan sliding towards "the precipice of total collapse".
"This is a pivotal moment in the history of our country," they said in a statement. "This is a war that no one will win, and that will destroy our country forever."
The RSF accused the army of carrying out a plot by loyalists of former strongman President Omar Hassan al-Bashir - who was ousted in a coup in 2019 - and attempting a coup itself. The 2021 coup ousted the country's civilian prime minister.
Eyewitnesses reported fighting in many areas outside the capital. Those included heavy exchanges of gunfire in Merowe, eyewitnesses told Reuters.
The RSF shared a video that it said showed Egyptian troops who "surrendered" to them in Merowe. Egypt said the troops were in Sudan for exercises with their Sudanese counterparts.
Hemedti told Sky News Arabia the Egyptians were safe and the RSF would cooperate with Cairo on their return.
Clashes also erupted between the RSF and army in the Darfur cities of El Fasher and Nyala, eyewitnesses said.
The violence comes after years of heightening tensions between the RSF and Sudan's military, headed by the president, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, as the country has struggled to transition to a civilian-led government. Here's what to know about the paramilitary force clashing with the Sudanese armed forces.
What are the Rapid Support Forces?
The RSF grew out of the Janjaweed militia, which was accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. According to rights groups, the RSF raped, pillaged, and burned villages beginning in the early 2000s. It also helped Omar al-Bashir - who the International Criminal Court has accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide - put down a rebellion there during his presidency.
At the time, Sudan's military boasted a strong air force and heavy weaponry - but it lacked the mobility to fight effectively in rural areas and the arid parts of Darfur. Using horses, camels, and 4x4 trucks with mounted guns, the Janjaweed - and later the RSF - attacked rebels and civilian villages alike.
"They helped turn the tide of war for the Bashir government," said Cameron Hudson, an expert on African peace and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
By the 2010s, the militia had transformed into a more formal rapid response unit, known as the Rapid Support Forces. Bashir rewarded the unit financially and its commanders grew wealthy and powerful. He started deploying the group beyond Darfur to respond to tribal violence along Sudan's borders.
"They were enforcing Khartoum's will on these rural areas," Hudson said, adding that Sudan's traditional military elite looked down on the RSF as uneducated herdsmen.
In 2019, civilian protests ousted Bashir from power. Two years later, the military and RSF staged a coup before turning over power to a civilian-led government under international pressure in late 2022. But that deal appears to have faltered, setting the stage for Saturday's clashes.
Sudan's formal military, which includes an airforce, has a major advantage over the RSF and is better placed to defend fixed positions, experts said. Because the RSF has traditionally fought in rural areas, its members are not well-trained for battle in more urban cities such as Khartoum.
Who leads the RSF and how large is the group?
The RSF is led by Vice President Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known universally as Hemedti.
Analysts say the group probably has about 100,000 members. Over the last two years, Hemedti ran a rapid recruitment campaign that helped grow the RSF's ranks. Its troops come largely from western Sudan, near Darfur, and areas long neglected by the government, including regions in the east near the Red Sea and along the border with South Sudan, experts say.
Before its rapid expansion, a 2019 Congressional Research Service report said that RSF had as many as 50,000 troops, allegedly including child soldiers.
The group's leader, Hemedti, has humble origins as a camel herder from a minority tribe in Darfur and was once a rebel. He eventually switched sides and turned the RSF into a powerful mercenary group. As he gained influence and wealth in Sudan, Hemedti grew his regional reach as well, deploying troops in Yemen.
Hemedti has also gone into business with the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit, in gold mining and security operations in Sudan's gold mining areas, according to Hudson.
Hemedti has tried to depict himself as an everyman standing up for Sudan's "marginalized areas," Hudson said.
What are Hemedti and the RSF's goals?
The group and its leader continue to seek political and regional legitimacy and have reportedly built up a fleet of armored vehicles and acquired drones, according to Mohamed Osman, who researches Sudan for Human Rights Watch, "This is a historical evolution from a militia force to this independent strong military force you're seeing at the moment," Osman said.
Hemedti's principal goal is to survive, Hudson said, and to be given a constitutional role in the country. He's hired public relations firms in Canada and the United Kingdom as he tries to better his image - and the image of the RSF - in Sudan and around the world.
The group has also tried to buy loyalty in more marginalized areas outside the cities by providing food. But because Hemedti and others grew rich and powerful by pillaging some of the same villages, that strategy is unlikely to work, Hudson said.