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What is Happening in Sudan? Understanding Clashes Between Army and Paramilitary

April 15, 2023
Smoke rises in Omdurman, near Halfaya Bridge, during clashes between the Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army as seen from Khartoum North, Sudan April 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Smoke rises in Omdurman, near Halfaya Bridge, during clashes between the Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army as seen from Khartoum North, Sudan April 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Since the early hours of Saturday, 15 April, Sudan has been witnessing clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which operated as a militia during the height of the Darfur conflict, but was recently merged with the formal military.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has urged the two sides to cease the fighting and give priority to the language of dialogue in a statement released by the Presidency on Saturday night.

Significantly, the Egyptian Armed Forces have confirmed the presence of Egyptian troops in an airbase in the town of Merowe, north of the capital, Khartoum, confirming that it is sparing no effort to assure their safety .

Here is a breakdown of the events as they continue to unfold.

The Current Situation

Sustained firing took place in Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum and several other cities, and the fighting continued to escalate as the day drew on, including the use of heavy weapons and air force fighters and helicopters.

In a sequence of statements, the RSF claimed that the SAF had attacked its base in southern Khartoum, and that they had seized control of the city’s airport, as well as the Republican Palace, which is the seat of the presidency in Khartoum.

Meanwhile, the SAF released a statement claiming that the RSF initiated the fighting, having attacked its forces in southern Khartoum and the residence of Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the commander-in-chief of the SAF. Another statement also refuted the claims of the RSF and described them as a rebel force.

As the conflict escalates, the SAF and RSF have been issuing conflicting claims about control of key strategic positions such as the airports of Khartoum and Merowe, and the television and radio building in Khartoum. As things stand, it is virtually impossible to verify the accuracy of any of these claims.

Both sides have also been closing the door on any possibility of compromise. The SAF has said in a statement that no talks would take place until the RSF was “decimated and dissolved”, while the commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hassan ‘Hamedti’ Dagalo told Al-Jazeera that the RSF’s goal is to put Al-Burhan on trial.

As the fighting carries on, Sudan, and particularly Khartoum, is in a state of turmoil, with power outages, road closures, and cancelled flights. The Sudanese Doctor’s union has also announced that the clashes have claimed the lives of 25 people, and caused the wounding of nearly 200.

Egyptian Troops in Sudan

On Saturday afternoon, the RSF shared a video showing Egyptian troops that had “surrendered” themselves in Merowe. The video shows a number of men attired in Egyptian army fatigues seated on the ground and speaking with members of the RSF. Other footage showed some RSF elements beside a military aircraft with Egyptian Air Force signs, claiming to have seized it in Merowe, the credibility of which Egyptian Streets is unable to verify.

The Egyptian Armed Forces released a statement later in the evening, urging the “the safeguarding of the safety and security of Egyptian troops who were in Sudan to conduct joint training with their Sudanese counterparts.”

The RSF has since expressed its readiness to cooperate with Egypt in the repatriation of the troops in question.

Apart from the Egyptian troops currently in Sudan, the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum has urged Egyptians living in Sudan to avoid unnecessary movement while the conflict continues to escalate.

International Responses

The world over, officials have made statements expressing their concern over the situation in Sudan.

In a call with the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Al-Sisi expressed deep worry over the situation in Egypt’s southern neighbour, emphasising the danger of the “negative consequences of the conflict. urged the fighting sides to cease the fighting and give priority to the language of dialogue.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, called for the immediate cessation of the ongoing clashes, tweeting that he was “deeply concerned” about the situation. Meanwhile the Russian Foreign Ministry called on those involved in the fighting to take “urgent steps” to end the clashes.

Foreign ministers of the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates held a conference call on the matter, and called for a halt to military escalation and a return to a framework agreement between civilian political forces and the military in Sudan, the Saudi Arabian News Agency said.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit – Secretary-General of the Arab League and former Foreign Minister of Egypt – condemned the hostilities, particularly in the holy month of Ramadan. He also stated the readiness of the Arab League’s Secretariat to be involved in achieving the goal of ceasing the fighting, stressing the responsibility of the fighting parties to safeguard the safety of civilians. The Under-Secretary-General of the Arab League announced that Egypt and Saudi Arabia called for a ministerial meeting of the Arab League to deal with the situation in Sudan.

Chairman of the African Union Commission, Comorian President Azali Assoumani, also called for the cessation of hostilities, inviting the RSF and the SAF to engage in talks to achieve this. He also called for pressure from the international community to pressure the fighting parties to de-escalate and negotiate.

Origins of the Conflict

Tensions between the RSF and the SAF have been rising for months, but their roots go as far back as the days of former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019. Under Al-Bashir’s rule, the RSF was formed in 2003 from a number of militias, which played a role in the conflict that raged in the Sudanese region of Darfur for decades. Later Bashir put the RSF under the authority of the SAF in 2017, while maintaining its autonomy and separate command structure.

However, the rising of the current tensions can be traced back to an internationally backed deal was proposed late last year, to put Sudan back on track to democratic transition and a return to civilian rule. This deal was brokered by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Nations, and the United States.

A key condition to this deal taking effect is the merging of the RSF with Sudan’s formal military, a condition the RSF has been resisting.

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