Thousands of displaced people have fled the formerly safe city of Wad Madani in Sudan, as the war between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) reaches the city.
Paramilitary forces established a base in the east of Sudan’s second-largest city and the capital of al-Jazirah state, the AFP news agency reported on Sunday, forcing thousands of already displaced people to escape.
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The RSF attack has opened a new front in the eight-month-old war, in what had previously been “one of Sudan’s few remaining sanctuaries”, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Sudan director William Carter.
Crowds of people – many of whom had taken refuge in the city from violence in the capital Khartoum – were seen packing up belongings and leaving on foot in videos posted on social media.
“The war has followed us to Madani so I am looking for a bus so me and my family can flee,” 45-year-old Ahmed Salih told the Reuters news agency by phone.
“We are living in hell and there is no one to help us,” he said, adding that he planned to head south to Sennar.
Sudan’s army, which has held the city since the start of the conflict, launched air strikes on RSF forces as it tried to push back the assault that started on Friday, witnesses told Reuters.
The RSF responded with artillery and RSF reinforcements were seen moving in the direction of the fighting, the witnesses added.
RSF soldiers have also been seen in villages to the north and west of the city in recent days and weeks, residents said.
Sudan spiralled into war after soaring tensions between army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF commander General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo exploded into open fighting in mid-April.
The war broke out due to disagreements over plans for a political transition and the integration of the RSF into the army, four years after former ruler Omar al-Bashir was deposed in an uprising.
More than 12,000 people have been killed, according to a conservative estimate by the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project, while the United Nations says nearly 6.8 million have been forced to flee their homes.
The UN on Sunday said 14,000 people have fled Wad Madani so far, and a few thousand had already reached other cities. Half a million people had sought refuge in al-Jazirah, mainly from Khartoum.
Wad Madani alone houses more than 86,000 displaced people, according to the UN, which has suspended all humanitarian field missions in al-Jazirah state.
More than 270,000 of the city’s 700,000 residents had been dependent on humanitarian aid, the UN said.
The United States Ambassador John Godfrey urged the RSF to “cease their advance” on al-Jazirah state.
“A continued RSF advance risks mass civilian casualties and significant disruption of humanitarian assistance efforts,” Godfrey said in a statement on Sunday.
‘Nowhere to hide from violence’
Families scrambled on Sunday to once again flee to safety but found bus tickets had quadrupled to $60 a head, and many had nowhere to go.
“A continuous flow of people, many of them who already ran for their lives just a few months ago, are now rushing towards already heavily burdened and resource-depleted cities in neighbouring states,” the NRC’s Carter said.
“We are also extremely worried for highly vulnerable families in Wad Madani who have been crammed into displacement sites in schools for months and have nowhere to hide from violence, no means to escape and nowhere else to flee,” Carter added.
Sudan’s doctors’ union said on Sunday the situation in the city has become “catastrophic” after pharmacies were forced shut.
The army and RSF last week cast doubt on an East African mediation initiative aimed at ending a war that has triggered the largest internal displacement in the world and warnings of famine-like conditions.
In Khartoum and cities in Darfur that the RSF has already taken, residents have reported rapes, looting and arbitrary killing and detention. The group is also accused of ethnic killings in West Darfur.
The RSF has denied those accusations and said anyone in its forces found to be involved in such crimes would be held accountable.