Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group are engaged in fierce fighting in the capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere in the country, raising fears of a civil war.
The fighting, which began on Saturday, has killed at least 56 civilians, the Sudanese Doctors Union said in a statement.
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The clashes follow months of heightened tensions between the army and RSF. The paramilitary group says it has taken control of the Presidential Palace and Khartoum International Airport in an apparent coup attempt. Military chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has rejected the claims.
Here is what you need to know about the RSF:
How was RSF formed?
The group evolved from so-called Janjaweed militias, which fought in a conflict in the 2000s in the Darfur region, where they were used by the government of long-ruling President Omar al-Bashir to help the army put down a rebellion.
An estimated 2.5 million people were displaced and 300,000 killed in the conflict.
International Criminal Court prosecutors accused government officials and militia commanders of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Over time, the militia grew. It was made into the RSF in 2013, and its forces were used as border guards in particular. In 2015, the RSF along with Sudan’s army began sending troops to fight in the war in Yemen alongside Saudi and Emirati forces.
In the same year, the group was granted the status of a “regular force”. In 2017, a law legitimising the RSF as an independent security force was passed.
In addition to the Darfur region, the RSF was deployed to states such as South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, where it was accused of committing human rights abuses. In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch described its forces as “men with no mercy”.
Analysts have estimated the RSF to have about 100,000 fighters.
Who runs the RSF?
The RSF is commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as “Hemedti”, or “Little Mohamad”. He currently holds the position of deputy head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council.
Dagalo was born into an impoverished family that settled in Darfur in the 1980s. He dropped out of school in the third grade and made a living trading camels before becoming a Janjaweed leader when the Darfur conflict broke out.
As the RSF became more prominent and its role in the country’s security affairs grew, Dagalo’s business interests prospered with help from al-Bashir. His family expanded its holdings in gold mining, livestock and infrastructure.
When did Dagalo take a top government position?
In April 2019, the RSF participated in a military coup that removed al-Bashir after months of demonstrations against his 30-year rule.
Four months later, the military and the pro-democracy movement reached a power-sharing deal, which established a joint military-civilian council that would govern Sudan for the next three years until elections were held.
Dagalo was announced as vice chairman of the council headed by al-Burhan.
Prominent economist Abdalla Hamdok was sworn in as Sudan‘s prime minister and leader of the transitional cabinet. Before signing the deal, activists accused the RSF of participating in killing dozens of pro-democracy protesters.
In October 2021, the RSF was involved in another coup with the army, halting the transition to a democratically elected government. The move triggered new mass pro-democracy rallies across Sudan that continue until today.
What are the source of tensions between army, RSF?
The army and pro-democracy groups have demanded the RSF’s integration into the regular armed forces. Adel Abdel Ghafar, a fellow at the Middle East Council, said the RSF “has resisted integration into the army, understanding it would lose its power.”
Negotiations on integration been a source of tension that has delayed a final signing of a new transition agreement, originally scheduled for April 1.
Dagalo and al-Burhan reportedly remain at odds over who would be the commander-in-chief of the military during a multiyear integration period. The RSF said the commander should be the civilian head of state, a situation the army rejects.