KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Sudan’s military and a powerful paramilitary force battled fiercely in the capital and other areas, dealing a new blow to hopes for a transition to democracy and raising fears of a wider conflict. A doctors’ syndicate said Sunday the death toll rose to 56, with at least 595 people wounded.
The clashes capped months of heightened tensions between the military and its partner-turned-rival, the Rapid Support Forces 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.
Chaotic scenes unfolded in the capital of Khartoum, where fighters firing from truck-mounted machine guns battled in densely populated neighborhoods. “Fire and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor in a public hospital in Omdurman. “We haven’t seen such battles in Khartoum before,” said resident Abdel-Hamid Mustafa.
By the end of the day, the military issued a statement ruling out out negotiations with the RSF, instead calling for the dismantling of what it called a “rebellious militia.” The head of the paramilitary group, in turn, branded the armed forces chief a “criminal.” The tough language signaled that the conflict between the former allies, who jointly orchestrated the 2021 coup, was likely to continue.
Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure appeared to be mounting. Top diplomats, including the U.S. Secretary of State, the U.N. secretary-general, the EU foreign policy chief, the head of the Arab League and the head of the African Union Commission urged the sides to stop fighting.
Arab states with stakes in Sudan — Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — also called for a cease-fire and for both parties to return to negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he consulted with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “We agreed it was essential for the parties to immediately end hostilities without pre-condition,” he said in a statement early Sunday.
The fighting comes after months of escalating tensions between the commander of Sudan’s miltitary, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the head of the RSF, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. It also followed years of political unrest since the 2021 coup.
The recent tensions stem from disagreement over 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.
The fighting erupted early Saturday. The two sides traded blame over who started and also made rival claims over who controlled strategic installations around the capital.
By early Sunday, at least 56 people had been killed across Sudan and at least 595 wounded.
The Sudan Doctor’s Syndicate said at least six of the deaths were reported in the capital Khartoum and its sister city Omdurman and another eight near Nyala, the capital city of the South Darfur province in the southwest.
The syndicate said the casualty toll was likely higher, with many believed to be still uncounted in western Darfur region and the northern town of Merowe.
The military said in a statement late Saturday that its troops had seized all RSF bases in Omdurman, while residents reported heavy airstrikes on paramilitary positions in and around the capital that continued into the night. After nightfall, sounds of gunfire and explosions were still heard in several parts of Khartoum, they said.
One of the flashpoints was Khartoum International Airport. There was no formal announcement that the airport was closed, but major airlines suspended their flights.
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. Flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 identified it as a Boeing 737 for SkyUp, a Kyiv, Ukraine-based airline. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The doctors’ group said two civilians were killed at the airport.
Burhan, the armed forces chief, told the Qatar-based satellite news network Al Jazeera, that the day began with RSF troops “harassing” the military south of Khartoum, triggering the clashes. He said RSF fighters entered Khartoum airport and set fire to some planes.
He said all strategic facilities including the military’s headquarters and the Republican palace, the seat of Sudan’s presidency, are under his forces’ control. He threatened to deploy more troops to Khartoum.
Dagalo accused Burhan of starting the battle by surrounding RSF troops. “This criminal, he forced this battle upon us,” he said.
Dagalo told Al Jazeera that he believed the fighting would be over in “the next few days.”
The RSF alleged that its forces controlled strategic locations in Khartoum and the northern city of Merowe some 350 kilometers (215 miles) northwest of the capital. The military dismissed the claims as “lies.”
The clashes 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 authorized to brief the media.
Pro-democracy activists have blamed Burhan and Dagalo for abuses against protesters across the county over the past four years, including the deadly break-up of a protest camp outside the military’s headquarters in Khartoum in June 2019 that killed over 120 protesters. Many groups have repeatedly called for holding them accountable. The RSF has long been accused of atrocities linked to the Darfur conflict.
Former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was ousted 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.
Cameron Hudson, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and a former U.S. diplomat, said the fighting could become wider and prolonged, calling on the United States to form a coalition of regional countries to pressure the leaders of the military and RSF to de-escalate.
Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy for Sudan, and the Saudi ambassador in Sudan, Ali Bin Hassan Jaffar, were in contact with Dagalo and Burhan to try to end the violence, said a U.N. official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Chad announced that it is closing its land borders with Sudan. ___ Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.