Smoke on the tarmac of the Khartoum airport on April 15, 2023, amid clashes in the Sudanese capital. Image Credit: AFP

Khartoum: Ongoing clashes in Sudan between the regular army and paramilitaries have killed at least 56 civilians, pro-democracy medics said early Sunday.

"The total number of deaths among civilians reached 56," the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said. It said there were "tens of deaths" among security forces but they were not included in that death toll.

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The Sudanese air force is conducting operations to confront the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the army said in a statement, as clashes broke out across the country.

Footage from broadcasters showed a military aircraft in the sky above the capital Khartoum, but Reuters could not independently confirm the material.

Sudan’s paramilitary commander Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo vowed that his fighters will keep on fighting until “all army bases are captured.”

“We will not stop fighting until we capture all the army bases and the honourable members of the armed forces join us,” Dagalo told Al Jazeera.

3 civilians killed

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

State-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) said one of its Airbus aircraft "had an accident" at Sudan's Khartoum airport before its scheduled departure to Riyadh on Saturday, without providing further details.

What we know so far
* Sudan’s main paramilitary group said it had seized the presidential palace, the army chief’s residence, and Khartoum international airport in an apparent coup attempt, but the military said it was fighting back.
* The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which accused the army of attacking them first, also said they had taken over the airports in the northern city of Merowe and in Al Obaid in the west.
* Airlines have halted flights to Sudan and there have been reports that two people were killed when a shell hit a passenger plane
* RSF commander Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo says his troops will keep on fighting until all army bases are captured
* The army says airstrikes have destroyed at least two RSF bases
* The army said it was fighting the RSF at sites the paramilitaries said they had taken. The army also said it had taken some RSF bases and denied that the RSF had taken Merowe airport.
* The army said the Sudanese air force was conducting operations against the RSF. Footage from broadcasters showed a military aircraft in the sky above Khartoum, but Reuters could not independently confirm the material.
* Clashes were also taking place at the headquarters of Sudan’s state TV, said an anchor who appeared on screen.
* The Sudanese armed forces spokesperson told the Al Jazeera Mubasher television station that the army would respond to any “irresponsible” actions, as its forces clashed with the RSF in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country. Brigadier-General Nabil Abdullah said there was a heavy presence of RSF troops at the TV headquarters in Khartoum.
* Eyewitnesses said clashes had also erupted between the RSF and army in the Darfur cities of Al Fasher and Nyala.

Saudia also said in a statement that its flights to and from Sudan had been suspended until further notice.

EgyptAir has also made the decision to temporarily suspend all flights to and from Khartoum Airport due to the ongoing security disturbances in Sudan.

The airline said that the suspension will remain in effect for 72 hours or until further notice, depending on the latest updates regarding the situation in Sudan.

World urges calm

Call for end to fighting

The military's civilian interlocutors called on both sides "to immediately cease hostilities and spare the country slipping into the abyss of total collapse."

Their plea was echoed by US ambassador John Godfrey, who tweeted that he "woke up to the deeply disturbing sounds of gunfire and fighting" and was "currently sheltering in place with the embassy team, as Sudanese throughout Khartoum and elsewhere are doing".

"Escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous. I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting," he said.

Arab League voices 'deep concern'

The General Secretariat of the League of Arab States (Arab League) has expressed deep concern and dismay over the current combat operations between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan.

In a statement, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary-General of the Arab League, stressed the warring parties' responsibility to preserve the security and safety of Sudanese civilians in the fighting areas and throughout the country, calling for an immediate halt to the escalation and an end to bloodshed.

Russia, US call for end to hostilities 

Russia said it was deeply concerned by escalating violence in Sudan and called for an urgent ceasefire.

“We urge the parties to the conflict to demonstrate political will and restraint and to take immediate steps towards a ceasefire,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement calling for negotiations.

Russia said its embassy in the capital Khartoum was continuing to function, under heightened security measures.

No Russian citizens were hurt during clashes in the African country, it said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday he was deeply concerned about reports of escalating violence, and called for an immediate end to hostilities.

“We are in touch with the Embassy team in Khartoum - all are currently accounted for,” Blinken wrote on Twitter. “We urge all actors to stop the violence immediately and avoid further escalations or troop mobilizations and continue talks to resolve outstanding issues.”

The head of the United Nations mission in Sudan called Saturday for an "immediate" end to fighting between the regular army and paramilitaries.

UNITAMS chief Volker Perthes "strongly condemns the eruption of fighting in Sudan," it said in a statement.

UAE calls for restraint, resolving crisis through dialogue
The UAE has urged all parties involved in Sudan conflict to exercise restraint, de-escalate tensions and work towards resolving the crisis through dialogue.
The UAE Embassy in Khartoum said it is closely monitoring the situation and emphasized the UAE's steadfast stance on the importance of reducing escalation and finding a peaceful solution between the parties involved.
The UAE also called for supporting efforts aimed at advancing the political process and building national consensus towards the establishment of a government.
Egypt expressed deep concern amidst continued clashes in Sudan.
In a statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Egypt called upon all Sudanese parties to exercise utmost restraint in order to protect the lives and resources of the Sudanese people and to prioritize the best interests of the nation.

"Perthes has reached out to both parties asking them for an immediate cessation of fighting to ensure the safety of the Sudanese people and to spare the country from furtherviolence."

Earlier the paramilitaries said they were in control of several key sites following fighting with the regular army on Saturday, including the presidential palace,  the residence of army chief General Abdul Fattah Al Burhan in central Khartoum.

In a statement, the RSF said it had taken “full control” of the presidential palace as well as the airports in Khartoum and Merowe in the north of the country.

It said the moves came in response to attacks by the regular army on RSF bases in south Khartoum.

"The Rapid Support Forces defended themselves in response to the hostile forces inflicting heavy losses" on the regular army, the RSF statement said.

It said its fighters "were able to take control of Merowe airport" north of Khartoum, "expelled attackers on bases in Soba" and "took control of Khartoum airport."

A Reuters journalist saw cannon and armoured vehicles deployed in streets, and heard heavy weapons fire near the headquarters of both the army and RSF.

Doctors said clashes had taken place in residential neighborhoods and civilians had been injured.

The army said the RSF had tried to attack its troops in several positions after witnesses reported heavy gunfire in multiple parts of the country, raising fears of a full-blown conflict.

Earlier, heavy gunfire and explosions have been heard around Sudanese capital Khartoum, witnesses said, following days of tension between the army and a powerful paramilitary group that has sparked warnings of a confrontation.

Smoke rises above buildings in Khartoum on April 15, 2023, amid reported clashes in the city. Image Credit: AP

Witnesses reported "confrontations" and loud explosions and gunfire near a base held by the paramilitary RSF in south Khartoum. The military used light and heavy weapons in the attack, it said. The army has not commented on the incident.

Smoke was seen rising from Sudan's Khartoum airport, witnesses told Reuters.

Sounds of gunfire were also heard in the vicinity of the presidential palace in central Khartoum, witnesses said.

Commercial aircraft trying to land in the capital, Khartoum, began turning around to head back to their originating airport. Flights from Saudi Arabia turned back after nearly landing at Khartoum International Airport, flight tracking data showed Saturday.

Paramilitaries said  that the regular army has entered their camps in south Khartoum and laid siege to paramilitary forces there.

"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 the army force "launched a sweeping attack with all kinds of heavy and light weapons."

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Lieutenant General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the military council and head of paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), greets his supporters as he arrives at a meeting in Aprag village, 60km away from Khartoum, on June 22, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters file
Who are the paramilitaries?
* The Rapid Support Forces is commanded by General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, who currently holds the position of deputy head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council. Analysts estimate the force numbers about 100,000, with bases and deployments across the country.
* It evolved from so-called Janjaweed militias that fought in the early 2000s conflict in Darfur, where they were used by the Omar Al Bashir regime to help the army put down a rebellion. At least 2.5 million people were displaced and 300,000 killed in the conflict in total, and the Janjaweed are accused of widespread human rights abuses.
* Over time the forces grew, and were used as border guards in particular to clamp down on irregular migration. In tandem, Dagalo’s business interests grew with help from Al Bashir, and his family expanded holdings in gold mining, livestock and infrastructure.
* Beginning in 2015, the RSF, along with Sudan’s army, began sending troops to fight in the war in Yemen
* In 2017, a law legitimising the RSF as an independent security force was passed. Military sources said that the army’s leadership had long expressed concern about the development of Dagalo’s forces and rejected their inclusion within its ranks.
* In April 2019, the RSF participated in a military coup that ousted Al Bashir. Later that year Dagalo signed a power-sharing agreement that made him deputy of a ruling council headed by army general Abdul Fattah Al Burhan.
* The RSF participated in a Oct 2021 coup that halted the transition to elections. Dagalo has since said he regrets the coup and has expressed approval of a new deal to restore full civilian government.

The rift between the forces came to the surface on Thursday, when the army said that recent movements by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group, had happened without coordination and were illegal.

On Friday and early on Saturday, the heads of both the army and RSF told mediators that they were ready to take steps to de-escalate the situation.

A confrontation between them could spell prolonged strife across a vast country already dealing with economic breakdown and flare-ups of tribal violence.

Earlier, General Abdul Fattah Al Burhan, the leader of Sudan's army, and General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, the head of a powerful Sudanese paramilitary group, were preparing to take steps to de-escalate tensions between their forces, mediators said in statements on Friday and early Saturday.

Warning of confrontation

The army on Thursday warned of a possible confrontation between the two forces following mobilisations by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary, in the most public sign of long-simmering disagreements that are hampering efforts to restore civilian rule.

The RSF, which together with the army overthrew Omar Al Bashir in 2019, began redeploying units in the capital Khartoum and elsewhere amid talks last month on its integration into the military under a transition plan leading to new elections.

Soldiers deploy in Khartoum on April 15, 2023, amid reported clashes in the city.

RSF chief Dagalo, better known in Sudan as Hemedti, has been deputy leader of the ruling Sovereign Council headed by army chief Burhan since 2019.

Sources close to both men said on Friday that they still remain at odds over who would be the commander-in-chief of the military during a multi-year integration period. The RSF says it should be led by the civilian head of state, a situation the army rejects.

That dispute has delayed the signing of a final agreement with political parties and the formation of a civilian government.

Following Thursday's warning from the army, several local and international players stepped forward with offers of mediation, including Finance Minister Jibril Ebrahim, Darfur Governor Minni Minawi and Sovereign Council member Malik Agar, three former rebel leaders who received posts following a 2020 peace deal.

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"After an honest and serious conversation, assured us of his total commitment to not escalate, and his readiness to sit with his brother the head of the Sovereign Council and his brothers in the armed forces at any time and without condition," a statement from the three men said on Friday.

In a separate statement early on Saturday, the men said they met with Burhan, who was "prepared to take any step that would help resolve the urgent problem between the armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces and return things to normal." "We assure citizens that the crisis is on its way to a resolution, and that our leadership is more aware than to lead the country to a civil war where even the victor will lose," they added.

Army sources told Reuters on Friday that in order to de-escalate the RSF needed to withdraw its forces from near a military airport in the northern city of Merowe, and that its movements needed to happen in coordination with the military and within legal limits. RSF sources told Reuters on Friday that the movements had occurred in coordination with Burhan.

Sowing discord

Talk of a potential confrontation and the sight of armoured vehicles and military trucks in Khartoum streets have made citizens fearful, several told Reuters.

Many blamed both sides. "They are fighting over power and plundering the country, we are fighting for food and drink and education and healthcare," said Nafisa Suleiman, sitting at a vegetable stall.

"The military is supposed to protect people and now they are our greatest danger," said 35-year-old Isam Hassan. "The RSF should be under the military's control. No country has two armies," he added.

The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the main civilian coalition, alongside pro-democracy resistance committees and labour unions accused Bashir's now-outlawed National Congress Party (NCP), which has a presence in the military, of "sowing discord" in a rare joint statement.

Earlier this week, an NCP official told Reuters the group was increasing its public activity against the pending deal.

While the army and RSF shared power with the FFC in the wake of Bashir's ouster, their coup against the civilian government in October 2021 provided an opening for Bashir loyalists to return to the civil service.

Hemedti has said that resurgence led him to regret the coup and support the new transition deal.

Why are paramilitaries fighting with army?
Khartoum: The tensions between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary stem from a disagreement over how the Rapid Support Forces or RSF should be integrated into the military — a key condition of an unsigned transition deal for Sudan.
The army-RSF rivalry, however, dates back to the rule of President Omar Al Bashir, who was ousted in 2019.
Created in 2013, the RSF emerged from the Janjaweed militia that Al Bashir unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in the western Darfur region a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.
Although both the army and the RSF together carried out a coup in October 2021 that upended Sudan’s transition to democracy, friction between them became increasingly visible in recent months, with conflicting public statements, heavy military presence in Khartoum and parallel foreign trips by military and RSF leaders.
The RSF said on Wednesday that its presence in northern Sudan and elsewhere is aimed at “achieving security and stability and fighting human trafficking and illegal migration.”
The wealthy paramilitary force is estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters.
According to Kholood Khair, founder and director of Confluence Advisory, a think tank in Khartoum, tensions between the army and the RSF are at an all-time high and Thursday’s military’s statement just fell “short of accusing the RSF of committing an act of rebellion.”

What’s power-sharing plan?
The escalation also comes as Sudan’s army and civilian politicians discuss a potential power-sharing plan that would curb the military’s dominance of the economy and provide a path toward democratic elections following the coup.
A plan to integrate the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces led by Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo into the regular army led by Abdul Fattah Al Burhan is one of the key points of contention, analysts have said.
Eleventh-hour haggling within the security forces over the details have twice forced postponement of the signing of an agreement with civilian factions setting out a roadmap for the transition.

Why is recruitment drive?
In recent weeks, as negotiations toward a deal backed by the international community gained momentum, both the RSF and national army began heavily recruiting in Darfur, according to people in the region.
“There is wide recruitment by the Sudanese Armed Forces as well as the RSF and other militias,” said Adam Rigal, a spokesperson for the internally displaced in Darfur.
“We know a lot of people that have been recruited, trained in Darfur and then sent to Khartoum for advanced training.”
The army and RSF didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

What’s the cornerstone of the accord?
The head of the RSF, =Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, disagrees over the command structure proposed as part of the new deal as well as the time line for his forces to be integrated into the national army, a cornerstone of the accord, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
Hemedti had put himself at the forefront of a planned transition toward democracy, unsettling fellow military rulers and triggering a mobilisation of troops in the capital Khartoum.
The rift between the forces came to the surface on Thursday, when the army said that recent movements, particularly in Merowe, by the RSF had taken place without coordination and were illegal.
The RSF said in a statement actions by the leadership of the armed forces and “some officers” were an attack on its forces and were intended to create instability.

2019 coup a mistake?
In recent months, Dagalo has said the 2021 coup was a “mistake” that failed to bring about change in Sudan and reinvigorated remnants of Al Bashir’s regime, which was ousted by the army in 2019 following month of mass protests.
Al Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose the ranks under Al Bashir’s three-decade rule, maintained that the coup was “necessary” to bring more groups into the political process.
A successfully implemented Sudanese power-sharing deal may restore billions of dollars of Western aid frozen because of a military coup in 2021, helping the beleaguered economy. It
may also accelerate large-scale investment by Gulf Arab nations, including in ports and agriculture.
The 2021 coup removed a Western-backed, power-sharing administration and dashed Sudanese aspirations for democratic rule after three decades of autocracy and repression under Al Bashir.
A months-long popular uprising forced the military’s overthrow of Al Bashir in April 2019. Since then, the former president, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide in the Darfur conflict, has been imprisoned in Khartoum.