- Sudan's army appears to gain upper hand, witnesses say
- Nearly 100 people have been killed
- Hundreds of civilians were wounded in the clashes
- UN food agency says 3 employees killed, halts operations
United Nations, United States: More than 180 people have been killed and another 1,800 injured in three days of fighting between rival factions in Sudan, the United Nations special representative to the country said Monday.
"It's a very fluid situation so it's very difficult to say where the balance is shifting to," Volker Perthes added of the violence between the army and paramilitary forces led by rival generals.
The violence erupted on Saturday after weeks of power struggles between Sudan's army chief Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who commands the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
The raging battles triggered a wide international outcry with appeals for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue.
"The death toll among civilians in clashes since it began on Saturday ... has reached 97," the doctors' union said in a statement early Monday, adding later that "dozens" of fighters had been killed.
The figure does not include all casualties as many could not reach hospitals due to difficulties in movement amid the fighting.
The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, a separate pro-democracy organisation, had also reported dozens of deaths among security forces, and some 942 wounded.
Loud gunfire and deafening explosions echoed across the streets of Khartoum Monday morning as clashes continued, according to journalists.
A stench of gunpowder lingered as plumes of thick black smoke emanated from damaged buildings, according to witnesses.
The fighting broke out after bitter disagreements between Burhan and Daglo over the planned integration of the RSF into the regular army - a key condition for a final deal aimed at ending a crisis since the 2021 military coup they orchestrated together.
The coup has already derailed a transition to civilian rule following the 2019 ouster of president Omar AlBashir and piled on a spiralling economic crisis in Sudan.
Over the weekend, those tensions between the armed forces chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the head of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, erupted into an unprecedented battle for control of the resource-rich nation of more than 46 million people.
Both men, each with tens of thousands of troops deployed just in the capital of Khartoum, vowed not to negotiate or cease-fire, despite mounting global diplomatic pressure. It is a deadly setback for a country at the crossroads of the Arab world and Africa, which four years ago ended the rule of a long-time dictator in part through largely peaceful popular protests.
Why did rivalry become conflict?
In October 2021, Burhan and Daglo together orchestrated a coup, upending a fragile transition to civilian rule that had been started after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Al Bashir.
Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose the ranks under the three-decade rule of now jailed Bashir, took the top job.
Daglo assumed responsibility as his number two. But it was only ever "a marriage of convenience", according to independent researcher and policy analyst Hamid Khalafallah.
"It was never a genuine alliance or partnership, they just had to tie their interests together to face the civilians as a united military front," Khalafallah added.
The rift widened, with Daglo - commonly known as Hemeti - coming to call the coup a "mistake" that has failed to bring about change and invigorated remnants of Bashir's regime.
As the army and civilian leaders came together to hammer out a deal to end the political crisis that began with the coup, the integration of the RSF into the regular army became a key sticking point.
For Alan Boswell, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, Daglo saw in the agreement an opportunity to become "more autonomous from the military" and enact "very large political ambitions".
According to analyst Kholood Khair, a December framework agreement for the deal "ratcheted up tensions between Burhan and Hemeti," when it "elevated Hemeti's position into Burhan's equal, rather than his deputy".
Khair, founder of the Khartoum-based Confluence Advisory think-tank, said "that shift in power is why conversations about security sector reform and integration of the RSF have ended up in armed conflict rather than heated debate around the table".
US, UK urge 'immediate cessation of violence'
The US and British foreign ministers on Monday urged an "immediate cessation of violence" in Sudan that has killed nearly 100 people, calling on opposing parties to return to talks.
There is agreement on the need for "an immediate ceasefire and a return to talks, talks that were very promising in putting Sudan on the path to a full transition to civilian led government", US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said alongside his British counterpart James Cleverly on the sidelines of G7 talks.
Blinken, speaking on the sidelines of a Group of Seven Foreign Ministers meeting in Japan, said close consultations had been held on the fighting, including with partners in the Arab world and Africa and with international organisations.
A strongly held view, again, across all of our partners on the need for an immediate ceasefire and return to talks, talks that were very promising in putting Sudan on the path to a full transition to a civilian-led government.
"There is a shared deep concern about the fighting, violence that's going on in Sudan. The threat that that poses to civilians, that it poses to the Sudanese nation and potentially poses even to the region," he said.
There was a strongly shared viewed that steps needed to be taken to protect civilians, non-combatants and people from third countries, he said.
Blinken's views were echoed by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
"Ultimately, the immediate future lies in the hands of the generals who are engaged in this fight, and we call upon them to put peace first, to bring an end to the fighting, to get back to negotiations," Cleverly said.
The clashes forced Sudanese to hunker down in their homes with fears of a prolonged conflict that could plunge the country into deeper chaos, dashing hopes for return to civilian rule.
Since Saturday, the two sides have traded blame over who started the fighting.
Each has claimed the upper hand by declaring control of key sites, including the airport and the presidential palace but none of their claims could be independently verified.
Fighting also raged in others parts of Sudan including the western Darfur region and in the eastern border state of Kassala.
World Food Programme halts operations
The Saturday killing of three staff from the World Food Programme in North Darfur clashes prompted the agency to suspend all operations in the impoverished country.
Medics have pleaded for safe corridors for ambulances and a ceasefire to treat the victims because the streets are too dangerous for transporting casualties to hospital.
The RSF was created under Bashir in 2013, emerging from the Janjaweed militia that his government unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in Darfur a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.
The latest violence sparked by the two generals has reflected the deep-seated divisions between the regular army and the RSF.
Despite the wide calls for a ceasefire, the two generals appeared in no mood for talks.
Burhan, who rose through the ranks under the three-decade rule of now-jailed Bashir, has said the coup was "necessary" to include more factions in 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.
In recent months, negotiations had been under way for a return to the democratic transition that had been halted by the October 2021 coup.
Under mounting international and regional pressure, the armed forces and the RSF signed a preliminary deal in December with pro-democracy and civilian groups. But the internationally brokered agreement provided only broad outlines, leaving the thorniest political issues unsettled.
During tortuous negotiations to reach a final agreement, tensions between Burhan and Dagalo escalated. A key dispute is over how the RSF would be integrated into the military and who would have ultimate control over fighters and weapons.
Dagalo, whose RSF was involved in brutal crackdowns during tribal unrest and pro-democracy protests, also tried to fashion himself a supporter of the democratic transition. In March, he slammed Burhan , saying military leaders were unwilling to relinquish power.
Analysts argued that Dagalo is trying to whitewash the reputation of his paramilitary force, which began as militias implicated in atrocities in the Darfur conflict.
How did the situation escalate?
On Wednesday, the RSF began deploying forces around the small town Merowe north of the capital. The town is strategic, with its large airport, central location and downstream electric dam on the Nile River. The next day, the RSF also sent more forces into the capital and other areas of the country, without the army leadership's consent.
On Saturday morning, fighting erupted at a military base south of Khartoum, with each side blaming the other for having initiated the violence. Since then, the military and the RSF have battled each other with heavy weapons, including armored vehicles and truck-mounted machine guns, in densely populated areas of the capital and the adjoining city of Omdurman. The military has pounded RSF bases with airstrikes. By Monday, dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting.
The clashes spread to other areas in the country, including the strategic coastal city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea and eastern regions, on the borders with Ethiopia and Eritrea. Fighting was also reported in the war-wrecked Darfur region, where UN facilities were attacked and looted. The UN says three employees with the World Food Program were killed in the clashes there on Saturday.
What are the prospects for a cease-fire and a return to dialogue?
The prospects for an immediate cease-fire appear to be slim. Burhan and Dagalo have dug in, demanding that the other surrender. The intense nature of the fighting also might make it harder for the two generals to return to negotiations.
On the other hand, the military and the RSF both have foreign backers, who unanimously appealed for an immediate halt to hostilities.
Meanwhile, there has been a flurry of diplomatic contacts. The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss Sudan on Monday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he discussed the developments in Sudan with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudi Foreign Minister said he spoke separately by phone with Burhan and Dagalo, and urged them to stop “all kinds of military escalation."
Cameron Hudson, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and a former US diplomat, said the Biden administration should get its allies in the region to push for peace.
"Without such pressure, we could find a conflict with the same pattern of the war in Tigray (in Ethiopia ),” he said.
What comes next?
According to Boswell, "this is an existential power struggle on both sides", adding that both sides see the conflict as a "very zero-sum" game.
With both generals out for blood, Khair finds it "unlikely they'll come to the negotiating table without one or both of them suffering heavy losses".
Though both continue to make "bellicose" statements against each other, she told AFP, "neither of them will come out of this unscathed".
The longer they battle it out in city streets, she said, the higher the civilian toll climbs and the harder it will be for either general to rule over the wreckage.
"Both sides are strong enough that any war between them will be extremely costly, deadly and long," said Boswell, who said even with a partial victory for either side in Khartoum, "war will continue elsewhere in the country", dividing up Sudan into strongholds.
"We're already in worst case scenario territory, and from here the scenarios only get grimmer and grimmer," he said, warning the impact will ripple throughout the region.