Heavy gunfire and explosions rang out in Sudan’s capital Khartoum following days of tension between the army and a powerful paramilitary group.
Shooting and blasts took place on Saturday in the vicinity of Sudan’s army headquarters and the defence ministry in central Khartoum, as well as the presidential palace and airport.
Columns of smoke emanated from various places in the city of 10 million people and soldiers were deployed on the streets. Civilians were seen running for cover as artillery exchanges rocked Khartoum.
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Witnesses reported “confrontations”, loud explosions, and gunfire near a base held by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in south Khartoum.
“The Rapid Support Forces were surprised Saturday with a large force from the army entering camps in Soba in Khartoum and laying siege to paramilitaries there,” the RSF said in a statement.
The army “launched a sweeping attack with all kinds of heavy and light weapons”, it said.
However, a spokesman for Sudan’s army said paramilitary troops attacked military bases.
“Fighters from the Rapid Support Forces attacked several army camps in Khartoum and elsewhere around Sudan,” said Brigadier-General Nabil Abdallah.
“Clashes are ongoing and the army is carrying out its duty to safeguard the country.”
Smoke was seen rising from the airport and RSF said its forces had taken control of the facility. RSF said it also had taken over two other airports – in the northern city of Merowe and El-Obeid in the south – and “full control” of the presidential palace.
Sudan’s General Intelligence Service denied the presidential palace had been seized, and the military said other RSF claims were untrue.
The Sudanese air force was conducting operations against the paramilitary fighters, the army said, with footage showing military aircraft in the sky.
A doctors’ association urged physicians to head to hospitals as casualties mounted.
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the ruling Sovereign Council, was reportedly safe.
In a phone interview with Al Jazeera, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces – General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti – called army chief al-Burhan “a criminal” and accused the military of carrying out a coup.
‘People are terrified’
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Khartoum, said fighting was ongoing.
“We are hearing gunfire in the capital near the vicinity of the presidential palace in the northern part of the capital,” said Morgan. “Lots of confusion here with regard to what is happening at the moment. People are terrified.”
The rift between the forces came to the surface on Thursday when the army said recent movements by RSF – a powerful paramilitary group – had happened without coordination and were illegal.
The heads of the army and the RSF earlier told mediators they were ready to take steps to de-escalate the situation.
A confrontation between them could spell prolonged strife across a vast country already dealing with economic breakdown and flare-ups of tribal violence.
Current tensions stem from a disagreement over how the RSF should be integrated into the military and what authority should oversee the process. The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement.
However, the army-RSF rivalry dates back to the rule of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, who was removed in 2019.
Under the former president, the paramilitary force, led by powerful General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, grew out of government-backed former militias known as the Janjaweed that carried out a brutal crackdown in Sudan’s Darfur region during the decades of conflict there.
Sudan conflict zone analyst Mohammed Alamin Ahmed said: “It’s a power struggle that began a long time ago and it has escalated to direct clashes today. There is an exchange of accusations on who started this, and the fighting has extended, not just in Khartoum, but also in the strategic city of Merowe where the Sudanese armed forces have a strong air force there.
“And it looks like the RSF is trying to neutralise the capacity of Sudanese army [and] air force there to pull them towards a ground battle.”
‘Struggle for power’
Kholood Khair, director of Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory, said the military and the RSF have always been at loggerheads because of divergent visions on consolidating power.
“There are signs that they are working together to escalate the tensions and very publicly show this escalation to get concessions from pro-democracy forces, only then to de-escalate those tensions. This has been a cycle of rinse and repeat over the past few years,” Khair told Al Jazeera.
According to Alex De Waal, executive director at World Peace Foundation, the escalation in Sudan is “a struggle for power and control”.
“The immediate trigger for the coup 18 months ago was to halt the exposure and dismantling of this military commercial complex that has been sucking the country dry for years,” he said.