Heavy fighting broke out in Sudan as the country’s army clashed with a powerful paramilitary force which claimed to have taken control of the airport and the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum.
Residents said they heard heavy gunfire and tank shelling on Saturday after failed negotiations between the army, paramilitary and civilian groups over a long-awaited power-sharing deal following a coup in October 2021. The army and paramilitary sides confirmed that fighting was under way.
The violence is the latest setback in a long-delayed transition to a civilian government following the ousting of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 after months of street protests.
The fighting follows days of tension in a power struggle between the army headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who became president after a coup in October 2021, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, Sudan’s vice-president and commander of the powerful Rapid Support Forces.
People familiar with al-Burhan’s thinking said there was a disagreement between the general and Hemeti over command and integration of the paramilitary force into the army. For its part, the RSF blamed the army for initiating a “sweeping attack with all kinds of heavy and light weapons”.
“I cannot give a time limit to the fighting,” Hemeti told Al Jazeera Arabic, adding that “al-Burhan is a criminal”.
In a statement, the army said that “episodes of conspiracy and aggression against our country continue by the forces rebelling against the state and national sovereignty”.
“Our forces are confronting the enemy, who is pushing his forces from his bases spread throughout the capital, in attempts to control strategic sites” including the palace, the army’s headquarters and the presidential compound, the statement said.
The RSF said it was “forced to make an adequate response” after “the Sudanese Armed Forces’ unprovoked attack on our camp in Soba this morning”. It had taken control of the palace and airports in Khartoum, Merowe and al-Obeid as well as “several other sites” with the aim of “preventing the further spread of violence and ensuring peace”, it said in a statement.
A senior member of the RSF said the international airport in Khartoum was under its control, as well as Merowe international airport, north of the capital.
A non-governmental Sudanese doctors’ committee said that residents of Khartoum and Merowe had heard gunfire and there were a “large number of injured”.
“These events took place in residential neighbourhoods, which led to varying injuries and serious cases among citizens,” the committee said.
“It is a frightening situation,” said a civilian activist who was involved in the power-sharing negotiations.
The US ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey said that “escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous” and called on “senior military leaders” to stop the fighting. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said all members of the US embassy in Khartoum had been accounted for and urged “all actors to stop the violence immediately”.
In a statement, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry expressed “deep concern” over the violence and called on Sudan’s military and political leaders to “give priority to the language of dialogue, restraint and wisdom”. They should focus on concluding the power-sharing agreement talks, the ministry said.
Saudi Arabia’s Saudia airline said it had suspended flights to Sudan after a Riyadh-bound fight came under fire in Khartoum airport and sustained damage.
Egypt’s foreign ministry said it had been following the developments “with deep concern” and called on “all Sudanese parties to exercise the highest level of self restraint” and to prioritise “the high interests of the nation”.
The Egyptian military said it was “following closely events in Sudan in the context of the presence of Egyptian forces carrying out exercises with their Sudanese counterparts” and that they were coordinating with the “relevant parties in Sudan to guarantee the security of the Egyptian forces.”
The UAE called for “calm and restraint”, urging efforts to achieve “national consensus towards the formation of a government”.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, called on all parties “to find a consensual solution to the crisis created by the October 25 coup and its harmful consequences” adding that on Saturday, “things have gone dangerously out of control”.
Hemeti is seen as close to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Burhan is seen as aligned with Egypt.
The RSF has its origins in the Janjaweed horseback militia, a ragtag force accused of widespread atrocities in Darfur which later evolved into an elite personal guard to protect al-Bashir, who did not want power concentrated in the armed forces.
Both Sudan and South Sudan are members of the Opec+ oil producers group and share oil export infrastructure, with all of their combined crude exports departing from the northern country.
While Sudan only produces around 50,000 barrels a day South Sudan produces 140,000 b/d according to S&P Global Platts. Much of the South’s oil revenue goes to Sudan in transit fees or to repay loans to international oil companies, according to the International Crisis Group.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo, Samer Al-Atrush in Dubai and David Sheppard in London