Sudan’s military and a powerful paramilitary force have engaged in fierce fighting in the capital and elsewhere in the country, dealing a new blow to hopes for a transition to democracy and raising fears of a wider conflict.
The fighting killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 170 others across the country, the Sudanese Doctors Union said in a statement late on Saturday.
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The group was unable to determine if all the casualties were civilians.
It added that there were many uncounted casualties, including military and paramilitary forces in the western Darfur region and the northern town of Merowe.
The clashes capped months of heightened tensions between Sudan’s army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group. Those tensions had delayed a deal with political parties to get the country back to its short-lived transition to democracy, which was derailed by an October 2021 military coup.
After a day of heavy fighting, the military struck a base belonging to the RSF in the city of Omdurman, which adjoins the capital Khartoum, according to witnesses, and ruled out negotiations with the paramilitary force.
It instead called for the dismantling of what it called a “rebellious militia”.
The sound of heavy firing could be heard throughout Saturday across Khartoum and Omdurman, where the military and the RSF have amassed tens of thousands of troops since the coup.
Witnesses said fighters from both sides fired from armoured vehicles and from machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks in fighting in densely populated areas. Some tanks were seen in Khartoum. The military said it launched attacks from planes and drones at RSF positions in and around the capital.
Residents described chaotic scenes.
“Fire and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor in a public hospital in Omdurman. “All are running and seeking shelter.”
“We haven’t seen such battles in Khartoum before,” said Khartoum resident Abdel-Hamid Mustafa.
Clashes intensify for control of airports
One of the flashpoints was Khartoum International Airport. There was no formal announcement that the airport was closed, but major airlines suspended their flights.
This included Sudan-bound flights from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which turned back after nearly landing at the airport, flight tracking data showed.
Saudi Arabia’s national airline said one of its aircraft was involved in what it called “an accident”. Video showed the plane on fire on the tarmac. Another plane also appeared to have caught fire.
The Sudanese Doctors Union said two people were killed at Khartoum airport, four in neighbouring Omdurman, eight in the city of Nyala, six in the city of El Obeid and five in El Fasher, the source added.
Reporting from Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan said clashes for the control of various airports had intensified throughout the day, as well as at other key facilities.
“Both sides are trying to control the airports because they will be major supply routes for whoever manages to control them,” she said.
The leaders of the armed forces and the RSF, who were partners in the 2021 coup, traded blame for starting Saturday’s fighting and offered conflicting accounts of who was in control of key installations.
General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, commander of Sudan’s military told Al Jazeera in a phone interview that RSF troops first “harassed” the military south of Khartoum, triggering the clashes.
He said the RSF attacked his residence at the army headquarters around 9am local time (07:00 GMT).
Burhan accused the RSF of entering Khartoum airport and setting fire to some planes. He also said all strategic facilities including the military’s headquarters and the Republican palace, the seat of Sudan’s presidency, are under his forces’ control.
“We think if they are wise they will turn back their troops that came into Khartoum. But if it continues we will have to deploy troops into Khartoum from other areas,” he said.
The head of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, accused Burhan of starting the battle by surrounding RSF troops.
“This criminal, he forced this battle upon us,” he said.
He told Al Jazeera the battle will pave the way to a peaceful solution, adding that in “the next few days” it would be over.
“I cannot give a time limit to the fighting; however, we are adamant to end it with the least of losses,” he said.
The RSF alleged that its forces controlled strategic locations in Khartoum and the northern city of Merowe some 350km (217 miles) northwest of the capital. The military dismissed the claims as “lies”.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the claims, and the situation on the ground was unclear.
Calls for restraint
The fighting came after months of escalating tensions between the generals and years of political unrest after the 2021 coup.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats expressed concern over the outbreak of violence. “We urge all actors to stop the violence immediately and avoid further escalations or troop mobilisations and continue talks to resolve outstanding issues,” Blinken wrote on Twitter.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres; the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell; the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat; the Arab League chief, Ahmed Aboul Gheit; and Qatar all called for a ceasefire and for both parties to return to negotiations to settle their dispute.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates called on those fighting in Sudan to exercise restraint and work towards a political solution in the county.
Former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was deposed in the 2021 coup, warned of a possible regional conflict if the fighting escalates.
“Shooting must stop immediately,” he said in a video appeal to both sides posted on his Twitter account.
Volker Perthes, the UN envoy for Sudan, and the Saudi ambassador in Sudan, Ali Bin Hassan Jafar, were in contact with Dagalo and Burhan to try to end the violence, said a UN official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Meanwhile, Chad announced that it is closing its land borders with Sudan until further notice because of the fighting.
The clashes centred in Khartoum but also took place in other areas across the country including the northern province, the conflict-ravaged Darfur region, and the strategic coastal city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea, a military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media.
The tensions stemmed from a disagreement about how the RSF, headed by Dagalo, should be integrated into the armed forces and what authority should oversee the process. The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement with political groups.
Cameron Hudson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that a security sector reform had been a key part of the democratic transition in Sudan.
“There has been a more intensive process over the last month or two to try to mediate some kind of outcome between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces to figure out the future dispensation of Sudan’s security forces,” he said.
Hudson said that tense talks, mounting tensions and troop deployments led to the current outcome, which is not surprising for anyone closely following the developments in the country.
“Washington is at a better place than anyone to try to intervene and mediate, but what we are seeing right now is that those messages fall into deaf ears,” he said.