Sudan fighting: RSF and army conflict in Khartoum, why is there fighting?

Sudan fighting

Sudan: The basics

  • Sudan is in north-east Africa and has a history of instability: It fell under military rule in 2019, when long-time leader Omar al-Bashir was toppled
  • Since then, two men have been in charge: The head of the army and his deputy, who is also the head of a paramilitary group called the RSF
  • They disagree on how to restore civilian rule to Sudan: The RSF leader claims to represent marginalised groups against the country’s elites but his forces were accused of ethnic cleansing

Hospitals have been shelled in Sudan as fighting between rival armed factions continues for a third day, doctors say.

Patients in the capital, Khartoum, have appealed for safe passage as gun battles rage in the city.

Violence between the army and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has left around 100 people dead, a doctors’ union said.

Both sides claimed to control key sites in Khartoum, where residents sheltered from explosions.

The Sudan Doctors’ Trade Union says there has been severe damage to al-Shab Teaching Hospital in Khartoum, along with two other hospitals, caused by clashes and “mutual shelling”.

It called the attacks a violation of international law.

More than 1,800 civilians and fighters have been injured according to Volker Perthes, the UN envoy for Sudan. He also put the death toll at 185 people on Monday, higher than the doctors’ union.

The two sides held a brief ceasefire on Sunday to allow the wounded to be evacuated, although it was not clear how strictly they stuck to it.

On Monday, clouds of smoke were visible above Khartoum’s main airport, with TV showing images of fires and explosions. Army air strikes targeted RSF bases, some of which are embedded in residential areas.

The fighting is between army units loyal to the de facto leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, a notorious paramilitary force commanded by Sudan’s deputy leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.

He said on Monday that the international community must intervene, and branded Gen Burhan “a radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air”. Gen Burhan has said he is willing to negotiate.

Alarmed neighbours Kenya, South Sudan and Djibouti are planning to send their presidents to help mediate in the crisis, however this is not currently possible because the airport is closed.

The US, EU and UK have called for an immediate end to the fighting.

There has been fierce fighting around the country’s seat of power, the Republican Palace. The army says it remains in control of all its bases, including its Khartoum headquarters, where heavy weapons have been used during intense clashes.

The sound of gunfire and explosions has hardly stopped since Saturday morning. One estimate put the number of injured at 1,100.

Beyond the capital, the army says it is in control of eastern parts of the country and the key Red Sea port of Port Sudan. But fighting is continuing in Darfur, where the RSF is strong, and also in Kordofan in the south.

Sudan state TV is now back on air and broadcasting pro-army songs and anthems, after many hours without transmission.

The internet is still up and running – no doubt because the military wants to make sure their version of events and their propaganda narrative out.

But electricity is down in many places and water supplies to homes have been cut, leaving terrified residents no choice but to venture onto Khartoum’s streets in search of drinking water.

One group of students trapped inside the headquarters of an oil company in Khartoum by heavy fighting told the BBC that they have not had food or water in three days.

Speaking on Monday, one student said the group were trapped “in the middle of a heavy firefight”, while another said air force jets were constantly bombing the area and “flying strikes from above”.

Sudan is a majority-Muslim country and the fighting has brought an abrupt end to the kind of outdoor socialising that usually happens during Ramadan after the day-time fast is broken.

On Sunday and early Monday, the RSF claimed to occupy sites in Khartoum such as the presidential palace.

But some accounts indicated that the army had regained control of the airport, with the military saying they were dealing with “small pockets of rebels”.

The army previously denied that the RSF had seized key sites in the capital, and witnesses in the country told Reuters news agency that the army appeared to be making gains after blasting RSF bases with air strikes.

Residents of Khartoum have spoken of fear and panic, and reported gunfire and explosions.

The major sticking points between the army and RSF are over the plans to incorporate the 100,000-strong RSF into the army, and over who would then lead the new force.

A chorus of international voices has called for a permanent end to the violence.

Leading Arab states and the US have also urged a resumption of talks aimed at restoring a civilian government, while the African Union has announced that it is sending its top diplomat, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to try to negotiate a ceasefire.

Egypt and South Sudan also offered to mediate between the warring factions, according to a statement by the Egyptian presidency.

What are the fault lines?

A central cause of tension since the uprising is the civilian demand for oversight of the military and integration of the RSF into the regular armed forces.

Civilians have also called for the handover of lucrative military holdings in agriculture, trade and other industries, a crucial source of power for an army that has often outsourced military action to regional militias.

Another point of contention is the pursuit of justice over allegations of war crimes by the military and its allies in the conflict in Darfur from 2003. The international criminal court is seeking trials for Bashir and other Sudanese suspects.

Justice is also being sought over the killings of pro-democracy protesters in June 2019, in which military forces are implicated. Activists and civilian groups have been angered by delays to an official investigation. In addition, they want justice for at least 125 people killed by security forces in protests since the 2021 coup.

What’s at stake in the region?

Sudan is in a volatile region bordering the Red Sea, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa. Its strategic location and agricultural wealth have attracted regional power plays, complicating the chances of a successful transition to civilian-led government.

Several of Sudan’s neighbours – including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan – have been affected by political upheavals and conflict, and Sudan’s relationship with Ethiopia, in particular, has been strained over issues including disputed farmland along their border.

Major geopolitical dimensions are also at play, with Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other powers battling for influence in Sudan.

Sources used: the BBC, The Guardian.