Clashes erupt between Sudan’s army and rival paramilitary, with wider conflict feared

Rapid Support Forces claim to seize Khartoum’s airport, presidential palace; fighter jets target militia’s positions in capital

Heavy smoke bellows above buildings in the vicinity of the Khartoum's airport on April 15, 2023, amid clashes in the Sudanese capital. (AFP)
Heavy smoke bellows above buildings in the vicinity of the Khartoum's airport on April 15, 2023, amid clashes in the Sudanese capital. (AFP)

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Fierce clashes between Sudan’s military and the country’s powerful paramilitary force erupted Saturday in the capital and elsewhere in the African nation, raising fears of a wider conflict in the chaos-stricken country.

In Khartoum, the sound of heavy firing could be heard in a number of areas, including the city center and the neighborhood of Bahri.

In a series of statements, the Rapid Support Forces militia accused the army of attacking its forces at one of its bases in south Khartoum.

They claimed they seized the city’s airport and “completely controlled” Khartoum’s Republican Palace, the seat of the country’s presidency. The group also said it seized an airport and air base in the northern city of Merowe some 350 kilometers (215 miles) northwest of Khartoum. The Associated Press was unable to verify those claims.

The Sudanese army said fighting broke out after RSF troops tried to attack its forces in the southern part of the capital, accusing the group of trying to take control of strategic locations in Khartoum, including the palace. The military also declared the RSF a rebel force and described the paramilitary’s statements as “lies.”

A military official told the AP that fighter jets took off from a military base north of Omdurman and attacked the RSF’s positions in and around Khartoum. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The clashes came as tensions between the military and the RSF have escalated in recent months, forcing a delay in the signing of an internationally backed deal with political parties to revive the country’s democratic transition.

Saudi Arabia’s national airline said one of its Airbus A330s was involved in “an accident” after video showed it on fire on the tarmac at Khartoum International Airport amid the fighting.

The airline said in a statement Saturday that all its flights were suspended after the incident. It did not elaborate on the cause of the “accident” though it appeared the aircraft was caught in the crossfire of the Rapid Support Forces and Sudanese soldiers fighting around the airfield.

Another plane also appeared to have caught fire in the attack. Flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 identified it as a SkyUp Airlines 737. SkyUp is a Kyiv, Ukraine-based airline. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other commercial aircraft trying to land at the airport began turning around to head back to their originating airport.

Tensions between the army and the paramilitary stem from a disagreement over how the RSF, headed by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, should be integrated into the military and what authority should oversee the process. The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement.

However, the rivalry dates back to the rule of autocratic former president Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019. Under al-Bashir, the paramilitary force grew out of former militias known as janjaweed that carried out a brutal crackdown in Sudan’s Darfur region during the decades of conflict there.

In a rare televised speech Thursday, a top army general warned of potential clashes with paramilitary forces, accusing it of deploying forces in Khartoum and other areas of Sudan without the army’s consent. The RSF defended the presence of its forces in an earlier statement.

The RSF recently deployed troops near Merowe. Also, videos that circulated on social media Thursday showed what appeared to be RSF armed vehicles being transported into Khartoum, farther to the south.

Army soldiers deploy in Khartoum on April 15, 2023, amid reported clashes in the city. – Sudan’s paramilitaries said they were in control of several key sites following fighting with the regular army on April 15, including the presidential palace in central Khartoum. (AFP)

According to a statement issued by the Sudan Doctors Committee — a part of the country’s pro-democracy movement — clashes have led to “varying injuries.” The military also said the fighting resulted in a number of casualties but provided no further details.

The US Ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, wrote online that he was “currently sheltering in place with the Embassy team, as Sudanese throughout Khartoum and elsewhere are doing.”

“Escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous,” Godfrey wrote. “I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting.”

In Saturday’s statement, the RSF said it was contacted by three former rebel leaders who hold government positions in an apparent bid to de-escalate the conflict.

In a joint statement, civilian signatories to December’s framework agreement also called for an immediate de-escalation. “We call on the leadership of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces to stop hostilities immediately,” it said.

Sudan has been marred in turmoil since October 2021, when a coup overthrew a Western-back government, dashing Sudanese aspirations for democratic rule after three decades of autocracy and repression under Islamist ruler Omar al-Bashir.

Sudan and Israel agreed to normalize ties in January 2021, although progress has been slow amid government instability and anti-Israel sentiment among the public.

It was the military — not the civilian — leadership in Sudan that played a more active role in advancing normalization with Israel.

In January 2022, an Israeli delegation landed in Khartoum and reportedly met with both Sudan’s top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the second-in-command of the RSF, both of whom took part in the coup.

Before that, in November 2021, Israeli officials reportedly met with Dagalo, the head of the RSF.

While much of the Western world condemned the coup, Israel has remained notably silent.

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