Airstrikes and artillery fire shook much of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and its neighbouring cities on Tuesday as fighting between the country’s warring factions intensified sharply.
New battles between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) flared from dawn in north and south Khartoum, as well as in the adjacent cities of Omdurman and Bahri, as the army sought to defend its bases from its paramilitary rival.
The army has been trying to cut off RSF supply lines from outside the capital, as well as to secure strategic sites including the airport in central Khartoum and the al-Jaili oil refinery in Bahri, observers said.
The RSF claimed to have captured 700 regular soldiers in an attack on an army base in the al-Jaili district, in addition to a large ammunition dump. The RSF’s chief media officer shared a clip on a journalists’ WhatsApp group showing hundreds of captive army soldiers walking in single file, some barefoot and none with weapons.
There was no immediate response from the army and the clips have not been verified. Both sides have frequently made exaggerated or otherwise misleading claims during the more than four weeks of fighting.
Talks in Saudi Arabia between representatives of the warring factions have failed to stem the violence, which has killed between 600 and 1,000 people so far, according to government officials and medics.
The real toll is expected to be far higher, with many reports of corpses left in the streets and people struggling to bury the dead.
The fighting between forces loyal to Sudan’s de facto military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the RSF, started on 15 April.
Both believe they can win a military victory that would bring them absolute authority over Sudan’s 46 million inhabitants, its crumbling state and valuable natural resources.
Eyewitnesses in different parts of Omdurman, which lies on the west bank of the Nile River, saw RSF forces withdrawing over the last 48 hours, apparently to launch new offensives in Khartoum to the south-east.
A resident of Bahri’s al-Khojalab neighbourhood told the Guardian he had seen RSF forces in dozens of pickup trucks. “Now there are very loud sounds of artillery and all sorts of weapons … we don’t [know] what’s going on,” the resident said.
The neighbourhood is on the opposite bank of the Nile to the Wadi Seidna airfield, from where the army has been launching airstrikes against the RSF.
Heavy fighting has also been taking place in Khartoum’s Jabra neighbourhood, where Dagalo and many of his senior commanders are based. At least two civilians were killed in a hospital on the eastern banks of the Blue Nile in Khartoum by an airstrike carried out by the Sudanese army, according to Dr Houida el-Hassan, a former doctor at the hospital.
The army said it had attacked a supply storage facility for the RSF and claimed the hospital was used by the RSF as a supply dump. Six civilians were killed 10 days ago in a similar airstrike in front of the hospital.
The RSF has been accused of occupying several hospitals after expelling patients and medical staff. About 80% of the hospitals in Khartoum are out of service and most pharmacies are shut. The pharmacies union issued a statement accusing the RSF of blocking deliveries of medicine to areas outside Khartoum.
The RSF is also accused of seizing people’s houses to use them as temporary strongholds from which its soldiers are targeting the military. Widespread reports of sexual assaults by fighters have emerged in recent days.
“The situation is unbearable. We left our house to go to a neighbour’s house in Khartoum, escaping from the war, but the bombardment follows us wherever we go,” Ayman Hassan, a 32-year-old resident, told Reuters. “We don’t know what the citizens did to deserve a war in the middle of the houses.”
Much of Khartoum has been ruined in the fighting, with food and fuel increasingly scare and expensive. Charred aircraft lie on the asphalt of the once busy international airport; foreign embassies are shuttered, and hospitals, banks, shops and wheat silos have been ransacked by looters.
One large market in Omdurman has been burning for two days after being emptied and then set alight by thieves.
What remains of the government has retreated to Port Sudan, about 520 miles (840km) away, which has been the hub for recent mass evacuations of foreigners and many Sudanese citizens.
The UN says almost 200,000 people have fled Sudan, and another 700,000 have been internally displaced by the conflict. The fighting has triggered unrest in other areas of Sudan, especially in the western region of Darfur and the southern Kordofan regions.
The talks in Jeddah brokered by Saudi Arabia and the US have produced a statement of principles about providing access for aid supplies and protecting civilians, but mechanisms for setting up humanitarian corridors and agreeing to a ceasefire are still being discussed.
Reuters contributed to this report