© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the Rapid Support Forces, greets his supporters as he arrives at a meeting in Aprag, Sudan, June 22, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
By Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir
KHARTOUM (Reuters) -Violence erupted between Sudan’s main paramilitary group and the armed forces on Saturday in an apparent struggle for control against the backdrop of the country’s halting moves toward elections after a military coup.
Amid conflicting reports from the two sides, the army rejected assertions by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that they had seized the presidential palace, army chief’s residence and airports in Khartoum and the northern city of Merowe.
Doctors confirmed three deaths but said many more civilians had been killed and wounded in the clashes that shook residential neighbourhoods of the capital. Fighting was also taking place at the headquarters of Sudan’s state TV, according to an on-air anchor.
The army said the Sudanese air force was conducting operations against the RSF. Footage from broadcasters showed military jets flying low over Khartoum, but Reuters could not independently confirm the material.
Gunfire and explosions could be heard across the capital, where TV footage showed smoke rising from several districts. Eyewitnesses reported shooting in adjoining cities.
A Reuters journalist saw cannon and armoured vehicles deployed on the capital’s streets and heard heavy weapons fire near the headquarters of both the army and RSF.
Army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan told Al Jazeera TV that the RSF should back down: “We think if they are wise they will turn back their troops that came into Khartoum. But if it continues we will have to deploy troops into Khartoum from other areas.”
The armed forces said on Facebook (NASDAQ:) it would not negotiate with the RSF unless the paramilitary force dissolved.
The RSF leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, called Burhan a “criminal” and a “liar”. The military and RSF have been competing for power as political factions negotiate forming a transitional government.
“We know where you are hiding and we will get to you and hand you over to justice, or you die just like any other dog,” he said in an interview with the station.
The RSF, which analysts say is 100,000 strong, said its forces were attacked first by the army, which surrounded one of its bases and opened fire with heavy weapons. The army said it was fighting the RSF at sites the paramilitaries claimed to have taken.
A prolonged confrontation between the RSF and the army could plunge Sudan into widespread conflict as it struggles with economic breakdown and tribal violence, and could also derail efforts to move towards elections.
The clashes follow rising tensions over the RSF’s integration into the military. The disagreement has delayed the signing an internationally backed agreement with political parties on a transition to democracy.
Civilian forces that signed a draft version of that agreement in December called on Saturday for an immediate halt to hostilities by both the army and the RSF, to stop Sudan sliding towards “the precipice of total collapse”.
“This is a pivotal moment in the history of our country,” they said in a statement. “This is a war that no one will win, and that will destroy our country forever.”
The RSF accused the army of carrying out a plot by loyalists of former strongman President Omar Hassan al-Bashir – who was ousted in a coup in 2019 – and attempting a coup itself. A 2021 coup ousted the country’s civilian prime minister.
RSF SAYS EGYPTIAN TROOPS SAFE
Eyewitnesses reported fighting in many areas outside the capital. Those included heavy exchanges of gunfire in Merowe, northern Sudan, eyewitnesses told Reuters.
The RSF shared a video that it said showed Egyptian troops who “surrendered” to them in Merowe. Egypt’s military said the troops were in Sudan for exercises with their Sudanese counterparts.
As Cairo sought guarantees for their safety, Hemedti told Sky News Arabia the Egyptians were safe and the RSF would cooperate with Cairo on their return.
The video showed men dressed in army fatigues crouched on the ground and speaking to RSF members in an Egyptian Arabic dialect. Unconfirmed reports by open-source intelligence analysts said several Egyptian Air Force fighter planes and their pilots were captured by the RSF.
Clashes had also erupted between the RSF and army in the Darfur cities of El Fasher and Nyala, eyewitnesses said. The RSF said it had taken control of airports in El Fasher as well as in West Darfur state.
International powers – the U.S., Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union – all called for an immediate end to the hostilities.
After a phone call, the Saudi, U.S. and UAE foreign ministers called for a return to the framework agreement on the transition to democracy, the Saudi state news agency reported.
Chad closed its border with Sudan while Ethiopia and Kenya called for restraint.
A Saudi Arabian airlines plane at Khartoum airport came under fire during clashes and the carrier suspended flights to and from Sudan, the state-owned airline said. Egypt’s national airline, Egyptair, said it was suspending flights to Khartoum for 72 hours.
Hemedti’s RSF evolved from so-called janjaweed militias that fought in a conflict in the 2000s in the Darfur region, where an estimated 2.5 million people were displaced and 300,000 killed.