Fighting in Sudan raged for a second day Sunday in battles between rival generals who seized power in a 2021 coup, leaving over 50 civilians including three UN staff dead and sparking international alarm.
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.
Violence erupted early Saturday after weeks of power struggles between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, commander of the heavily-armed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), with each accusing the other of starting the fight.
“The gunfire and explosions are incessant,” said 34-year-old Ahmed Hamid from a northern Khartoum suburb.
“The situation is very worrying and it doesn’t seem like it will calm anytime soon,” said Ahmed Seif, another Khartoum resident, who fears his building had been damaged by gunfire but said it was too dangerous to go outside to check.
Both sides claim they control key sites, while state television broadcasted patriotic songs without commentary.
Daglo’s RSF say they have seized the presidential palace, Khartoum airport and other strategic sites, but the army insist they are in charge.
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” amid the clashes but that it had been contained.
On Sunday, the stench of gunpowder wafted through Khartoum’s streets, deserted except by soldiers as frightened civilians sheltered inside their homes.
Civilians ‘not a target’
The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said they had recorded 56 civilians killed as well as “tens of deaths” among security forces, and around 600 wounded.
Fighting has also erupted outside Khartoum, including in the troubled 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 United Nations said three employees of its World Food Programme (WFP) had been killed in clashes in North Darfur.
It was not immediately clear whether the three deaths on Saturday were included in the tally provided by the medics.
UN Special Representative Volker Perthes condemned the killings in a statement, saying “civilian and humanitarian aid workers are not a target.”
He said he was also “appalled by reports of projectiles hitting UN and other humanitarian premises humanitarian premises in several locations in Darfur”.
WFP said an aircraft managed by the organisation “was also significantly damaged” at Khartoum airport.
Medics on social media have continued to call for help, pleading for safe corridors for ambulances and a ceasefire to treat the victims, warning the streets were too dangerous to bring many casualties to hospitals.
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.
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.
UN chief Antonio Guterres called for “an immediate cessation of hostilities”, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the fighting “threatens the security and safety of Sudanese civilians”.
Similar appeals came from the African Union, Britain, China, the European Union and Russia, while Pope Francis said he was following the events “with concern” and urged dialogue.
The AU is to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday, as is the Arab League, following a request by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But the two generals appear in no mood for talks. In an interview with UAE-based 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”, saying there “will be no negotiations or talks until the dissolution” of the group.
The latest violence, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, came after more than 120 civilians had already been killed in a crackdown on regular pro-democracy demonstrations over the past 18 months.
The October 2021 coup triggered international aid cuts and sparked near-weekly protests, adding to the deepening troubles of one of the world’s poorest countries.
Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under the three-decade rule of now jailed Islamist 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.