Sudan was plunged into a long-feared violent crisis on Saturday as a bitter struggle for power appeared to break out between the two main factions of the ruling military regime.
At least 25 people were reported to have been killed in clashes in the vast and strategic east African country during heavy fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Force (RSF), according to the Sudan Doctor’s Committee, a local NGO.
The fighting threatens to destabilise not just Sudan but much of the region, as well as exacerbating a battle for influence that involves major Gulf powers as well as the US, EU and Russia. The Sudanese armed forces are broadly loyal to Abdulfatah al-Burhan, the current de facto ruler of Sudan, while the RSF, a collection of militia follow the controversial former warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.
“It’s calmed down a bit but does not feel like it is just going to peter out. They started shooting in the early hours and I thought this still could be skirmishes but then the air force got involved and both commanders went on television and did not use language that indicated they wanted to find a peaceful solution,” said Kholood Khair, an analyst in Khartoum.
“There’s a lot of war propaganda and misinformation on both sides … but a lot of countries in the region see this in terms of an endgame military with Sudanese armed forces outgunning the RSF. Hemedti may also have overestimated his popular support. People in Sudan want to see democracy but don’t believe that either of these actors are going to bring it,” she said.
“It may well be a fight to the end and neither will come out unscathed.”
Hemedti told the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Arabic network that Gen al-Burhan was “a liar” who would be brought “to justice like a dog”.
On Saturday night, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, called for an immediate end to the violence.
Guterres spoke with leaders of Sudan’s army and paramilitary RSF, Egypt’s president and the chair of the African Union Commission, his spokesperson said.
The head of RSF said that his forces were ready to cooperate with Egypt to ease the return of Egyptian troops who had handed themselves over to the group in the northern Sudanese town of Merowe.
Two Egyptian security sources said Egyptian officials were able to make contact with the leader of the Egyptian unit to confirm they were safe.
The struggle for power has its roots in the years before the 2019 uprising that ousted dictatorial ruler Omar al-Bashir, who built up formidable security forces which he deliberately set against each other.
When the effort to transition to a democratic civilian-led government faltered after Bashir’s fall, an eventual showdown was inevitable, with diplomats in Khartoum warning in early 2022 that they feared such an outbreak of violence. In recent weeks, tensions have risen further.
Military jets could be seen flying from an airbase in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city on the other bank of the Nile, while heavy gunfire could be heard throughout the city for much of the day.
The Reuters news agency reported late on Saturday thatn the army had launched airstrikes on a base belonging to the Rapid Support Forces in Omdurman.
“This does not feel like it will stop, unless some real heavyweights get involved in mediating a ceasefire,” said Khair.
Yassir al-Awad, a father of four daughters and a resident of Khartoum, told the Observer that the city was witnessing a “power struggle between military leaders”.
“The Sudanese people should not take part but sadly we have been dragged into it, as Sudanese people we do not have any interest in this. Whichever one wins, we are the losers at the end,” al-Awad said.
Abulilah Musa, a medical student who was confined to his home on Saturday, said that he had been expecting the war since the end of the 2019 revolution.
“What happened today is just the beginning and I won’t be surprised if this will continue for more than five years. We are entering a very bleak future.”
Exact details of events on Saturday are unclear but reports suggest the army may have attacked a military base for the RSF in southern Khartoum in the morning, triggering firefights elsewhere in the city in subsequent hours. By noon, battles were raging around Khartoum’s international airport, in the centre of the capital, where flights were stopped after two Saudi jets were hit.
“Fighters from the Rapid Support Forces attacked several army camps in Khartoum and elsewhere around Sudan,” army spokesperson Brig Gen Nabil Abdallah told AFP.
The RSF in an earlier statement claimed that they gained control of the presidential palace and the strategic al-Obyied airport in northern Kurdufan state, though the army denied this was true.
The paramilitary force also claimed that they had controlled the Merowe airport north of Khartoum. Media reports suggested that about 45 soldiers in Sudanese army have been injured in Merowe during heavy fighting between the two forces.
The RSF was founded by Bashir to crush the rebellion in Darfur that started against the political and economic marginalisation by central government of the people of Darfur more than 20 years ago. Their forces were also known by the name of Janjaweed, which became associated with widespread atrocities.
In 2013 Bashir transformed the Janjaweed into a semi-organised paramilitary force and gave their leaders military ranks before deploying them to crush a rebellion in South Darfur and then dispatching many to fight in the war in Yemen.
Hundreds of RSF paramilitaries were also sent to fight in Libya alongside Gen Khalifa Haftar’s army in the east.
The RSF, led by Hemedti, and regular military forces under Burhan cooperated to oust Bashir in 2019. The RSF then dispersed a peaceful sit-in in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum killing hundreds of people and raping dozens more.
A power-sharing deal with the civilians who led the protests against Bashir which was supposed to bring about a transition towards a democratic government was interrupted by a coup in October 2021. More than 100 people were killed in further protests.
Hemedti has massive wealth derived from the export of gold from illegal mines and tens of thousands of battle-hardened veterans – some bloodied in the genocidal campaigns in Darfur – under his command. He has long chafed at his position as official deputy. One particular bone of contention between the warring factions is the process of integration of the RSF into the regular armed forces.
There is a regional dynamic at play too – with major geopolitical dimensions with Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other powers battling for influence in Sudan.
Sudan’s former prime minister Abdullah Hamadouk warned that the fighting in Sudan could result in war across the whole region, and called for calm.
Awad said that “the regional influences are very obvious in this conflict, each one of them is getting supported by some countries around us, it’s not a Sudanese thing, it seems like a proxy war”.
The African Union said that “things have gone dangerously out of control” and called for an immediate end to hostilities.