Sudan paramilitaries clash with army in struggle for power

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 had 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 tensions 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”.

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-east of the capital.

A non-governmental Sudanese doctors’ committee said that residents of Khartoum and Merowe had heard gunfire. “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.

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.

He was deposed by al-Burhan and Hemeti in 2019 following months of streets protests led by civilians. Hemeti was also part of a putsch against former prime minister Abdallah Hamdok.

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