Battles raged in Khartoum on Sunday as envoys from Sudan’s warring parties were in Saudi Arabia for talks that international mediators hope will bring an end to a three-week-old conflict that has killed hundreds and triggered an exodus.
The United States-Saudi initiative is the first serious attempt to end fighting between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that has turned parts of the Sudanese capital into war zones, derailed an internationally backed plan to usher in civilian rule following years of unrest and uprisings, and created a humanitarian crisis.
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The warring sides have said the talks would address humanitarian issues and not negotiate an end to the war.
Saudi Arabia will allocate $100m in humanitarian aid to Sudan, Saudi state-run Al Ekhbariya television said.
Battles since mid-April have killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands of others, disrupted aid supplies and sent 100,000 refugees fleeing abroad.
Ahmed al-Amin, a resident of the Haj Yousif district in northeastern Khartoum, on Sunday told AFP news agency he “saw fighter jets flying above our heads and heard the sounds of explosions and anti-aircraft” fire.
Manahil Salah, a 28-year-old laboratory doctor on an evacuation flight from Port Sudan to the United Arab Emirates, said her family hid for three days in their home close to army headquarters in the capital before eventually travelling to the Red Sea Coast.
“Yes I am happy to survive,” she said. “But I feel deep sadness because I left my mother and father behind in Sudan, and sad because all this pain is happening in my homeland.”
Thousands of people are pushing to leave Port Sudan on boats to Saudi Arabia, paying for expensive commercial flights through the country’s only functioning airport, or using evacuation flights.
“We were lucky to travel to Abu Dhabi, but what’s happening in Khartoum, where I spent my whole life, is painful,” said 75-year-old Abdulkader, who also caught an evacuation flight to the UAE. “Leaving your life and your memories is something indescribable.”
The United Nations’ top humanitarian official arrived in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on Sunday for talks aiming for a ceasefire between Sudan’s warring generals, a spokesperson said.
“Martin Griffiths is in Jeddah at the moment and the purpose of his visit is to engage in humanitarian issues related to Sudan,” spokesperson Eri Kaneko said.
A UN official said Griffiths would meet representatives of the two generals. There was no indication that Griffiths would play a direct role in discussions about a possible ceasefire.
The warring generals have already announced multiple truces, but none has taken hold.
Sudanese and Saudi officials have provided scant details about what the Jeddah talks will cover and how long they will last.
A joint US-Saudi statement on Saturday described them as “pre-negotiation talks”.
While mediators are seeking a path to peace, both sides have made it clear they would only discuss a humanitarian truce, not negotiate an end to the war.
Confirming his group’s attendance, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, said he hoped the talks would achieve their intended aim of securing safe passage for civilians.
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Khartoum, said that the Sudanese army “has made it clear that these are not peace talks; it’s not meant to end the conflict.
“It’s only meant to open humanitarian corridors for those who are in need of assistance to be able to get them and those who want to leave the capital but have been unable to do so since the start of the fighting to be able to do that as well,” Morgan said.
“Many people here say that they don’t have any hopes that this would mean an end to the conflict, but they’re also saying that they don’t believe any agreement between the RSF and the Sudanese army to open humanitarian corridors would actually hold. When we ask them why, they say we’ve seen the previous ceasefires and how it’s manifested.”
Hemedti has vowed to either capture or kill army leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and there was also evidence on the ground that both sides remain unwilling to make compromises to end the bloodshed.
The conflict started on April 15 following the collapse of an internationally backed plan for a transition to democracy.
Al-Burhan, a career army officer, heads a ruling council installed after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir and a 2021 military coup, while Hemedti, a former militia leader who made his name in the Darfur conflict, is his deputy.
Prior to the fighting, Hemedti had been taking steps like moving closer to a civilian coalition that indicated he had political plans. Al-Burhan has blamed the war on his “ambitions”.
The extensive use of explosive ordnance throughout the fighting has increased the danger to civilians, especially children who can mistake the munitions for toys and play with them, said the United Nations Mine Action Service.
Western powers have backed the transition to a civilian government in a country that sits at a strategic crossroads between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and the volatile Sahel region.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan was travelling to Saudi Arabia at the weekend for talks with Saudi leaders.