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Sudan’s forces continue fighting leaving thousands injured

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FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah – A protester carries a flag during a rally marking the anniversary of the April uprising, in Khartoum, Sudan April 6, 2023.

By Pavan Kulkarni

Over 180 people have been killed and more than 1,800 injured as the fighting within Sudan’s security forces continued in several densely populated cities for the third day. The figures were announced in a press conference given by Volker Perthes, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan, on Monday.

The highest number of deaths have been reported in the capital Khartoum City, where Sudan’s powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is trying to capture key areas and infrastructure from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

Led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, the deputy chairperson of the military junta ruling since the coup in October 2021, the RSF is battling the army for the Presidential Palace, the HQ of SAF, the airport, as well as other key areas in the capital.

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by the junta’s chairperson and army chief, Abdel Fattah al Burhan, is fighting back and has, in turn, launched its own offensive on bases of the paramilitary in Khartoum and other cities. Both sides have made competing claims about controlling key infrastructures.

“According to the information I have been able to gather from several sources, the RSF had taken over most of SAF’s general command by Sunday. But the airforce tilted the balance,” said Abdul (name changed), whose NGO had been conducting workshops to promote some form of an agreement to avert this war in its run-up.

“The SAF forced the RSF out on Monday with airstrikes on its own HQ for two days,” he told Peoples Dispatch. “The RSF has now moved to the northeast of the HQ in the Burri neighbourhood, which had seen massive protests during the December Revolution.” He was referring to the pro-democracy demonstrations that began in December 2018 and overthrew former dictator Omar al Bashir on April 11, 2019.

Against the backdrop of Revolution and Counter-Revolution

The December Revolution’s forces have since been in a struggle to wrest power from army-chief Burhan and RSF head Hemeti, two close confidants of Bashir who had formed a military junta the very next day, with the former as its chairperson and the latter as his deputy. When the mass sit-in demonstration occupying the square outside SAF’s HQ continued calling on the military junta to hand over power to civil authority, the RSF cleared it, and committed a massacre on June 3, 2019. Over 100 protesters were killed.

The junta, led by the duo, had shared power with some right-wing parties of the coalition called the Freedom and Change Forces (FFC) for a brief interregnum from August 2019 to October 2021, when all power was once again seized by the military with a coup.

Since then, however, the junta has been unable to govern the country rocked by perpetual protests. As calls from the militant pro-democracy movement, including the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), for a complete overthrow of the junta grew louder, the junta also faced increasing international pressure. This led Burhan and Hemeti to, once again, begin talks with the right-wing parties, resulting in the Framework Agreement on December 5, 2022.

The finalisation of the Political Agreement to govern with the FFC was postponed from April 1 to April 6 before it effectively fell apart in the build-up to this war, which started on April 15. One of the key pending items for its conclusion was the question of the integration of the RSF into the SAF.

While RSF’s Hemeti demands a 10-year period for this integration, SAF’s Burhan insists on its completion within two years. Fearing Burhan’s intention to undercut FFC by bringing on board the Democratic Block coalition, which includes parties that had been in an alliance with ousted dictator Bashir’s Islamist party, the FFC appeared to be siding with the RSF, willing to cede to it another decade of autonomy.

Armed conflict between the SAF and the RSF has erupted in this context, marked by several contradictions within what the SCP calls the “counter-revolutionary camp” – i.e. the different components of the divided security forces as well as the different coalitions of right-wing parties competing with each other to share power with them.

SCP remarked that revolutionaries, who were earlier coming under fire when the army and the RSF together attacked their protests against the military rule and the right-wing parties’ attempts to legitimise it with a civilian partnership, are now caught in the crossfire between them.

Hospitals under attack

The RSF is launching attacks on SAF’s HQ from the positions they have taken in the Burri neighbourhood, which was a site of many militant pro-democracy demonstrations and fierce crackdowns. “And the SAF is, in turn, shelling this densely populated area with tanks and artillery fire,” said Abdul.

Health workers have denounced that even hospitals and medical facilities have not been spared. “We have repeatedly appealed to the parties involved in the conflict not to attack health facilities, but what happened was exactly the opposite. Hospitals and health institutions in Khartoum and cities all over Sudan are being hit with heavy artillery and firearms,” Sudan Doctors Union (SDU) said in a statement on Monday.

The bombing of Al-Shaab Teaching Hospital in Khartoum has left it “completely out of service, leaving the medical staff, patients, children, and companions in an unsafe environment and in a state of confusion and fear.” Ibn Sina Specialist Hospital in the city has also suffered “severe damages”, SDU said, adding, “The Police Hospital was evacuated due to attacks and is now completely out of service.”

To the north of the capital Khartoum, in the city of Khartoum Bahri, which has seen many civilian casualties, the Bashayer Hospital was shelled in an exchange between the army and the RSF. After a power outage in another one of the city’s hospitals, Al-Dowali Hospital, its fuel reserve to run electricity generators has fallen “dangerously low, which puts the lives of patients in intensive care and emergency surgeries in severe danger,” the doctors’ union warned.

Deaths have also been reported in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman. Abdul, who resides in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood of this city, said with a sense of relief, “I can only hear intermittent firing today (on April 16).”

Dwindling supplies increases strain on civilian population

Abdul’s neighbourhood, like many others across the three main cities of Khartoum state and elsewhere, has run out of water and electricity, making residents’ survival increasingly difficult by the day. “We’ve had no electricity since the grid was hit on Saturday. It is a matter of time before the stored food products in supermarkets start rotting,” Abdul said.

Many fear a looming food shortage as fresh produce from rural areas cannot reach the city under bombardment.

“The water in the taps stopped soon after the fighting erupted on April 15. We managed on the reserves we had stored for three days, but now, we are only left with only three litres,” for a family, including his wife, two children below the age of five, and ageing parents, he said, adding, “The nearest store is out of water. I have to cross three streets to reach the next store, but I will risk exposing myself to fire on the way.”

“I am planning to take my family and leave from here for another safer neighbourhood in the city. Not for electricity and water, but because my neighbourhood is getting increasingly dangerous. The RSF is taking positions on one side, and the SAF is on the other. The worst is yet to come. I want to get my family out of here before that,” he added.

The SAF’s stay-at-home warning has remained in place as its fighter-planes swoop down to strike targets and occasionally get shot out of the urban sky by anti-aircraft guns manned by the RSF, which claims to be controlling all the entrances and exits to Khartoum state.

Several deaths and injuries have also been reported outside Khartoum, 400 km southwest of Sudan’s capital, in El-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan state, where “Al-Dhaman Hospital was closed down after it was stormed by armed personnel,” according to the SDU.

Over 200 km to the north of Khartoum, fighting continues in the Northern state bordering Egypt for the control of the Merowe military airbase. It was RSF’s deployment to surround this airbase on April 12, amid simmering tensions with the army, that finally sparked off an armed confrontation on April 15.

Egyptian soldiers in Merowe airbase

Later that day, the RSF claimed control over this airbase and released a video showing some Egyptian soldiers it had captured from this base. One MiG-29 Fulcrum belonging to the Egyptian air force was destroyed in this base, while two others appear to have been damaged, according to The War Zone’s analysis of satellite imagery.

The RSF, which is backed by the UAE, said it had to take over the airport to prevent Egypt, which is supporting Burhan and his army, from using it to attack the RSF. The Egyptian armed forces said it is “in close coordination with the Sudanese authorities to ensure the safety of our troops during the joint training exercises.”

On Sunday, SAF claimed to have wrested back control, adding that over a hundred RSF vehicles had fled the base with the Egyptian pilots in their custody. On Monday, the RSF, in turn, claimed control over Merowe airbase, with a video showing its troops in front of a fighter plane.

Fighting is also underway for control over Sudan’s main seawater port facing Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea in the city of Port Sudan. SAF claimed to have taken over RSF’s bases in Port Sudan, along with those in Kassala in eastern Sudan, Gedaref and Damazin in the southeast, close to the Ethiopian border, and Kosti and Kadugli in the south, close to the border with South Sudan.

More blood-letting in Darfur

Intense fighting is also underway in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, which is the old stomping ground of the RSF. The militias used by the state under Bashir’s dictatorship to commit alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur during the civil war, which started in 2003, were coalesced into RSF under Hemeti’s command in 2013.

While Bashir is on trial for these crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC), RSF has become a powerful organization with a vast financial network built on mining gold from Darfur’s lands, where it has continued an alleged depopulation campaign in cahoots with the SAF.

Read more: Massacres in West Darfur: Depopulation campaign on mineral-rich lands by Sudan’s military junta?

West Darfur is among the worst affected states in the Darfur region, where 100,000 people were displaced only a year ago in April 2022 after massacres led by RSF killed at least 200 in the state’s capital El Geneina. RSF claimed to have taken complete control of this state and its capital on Monday, April 17.

Fighting in North Darfur state’s capital, El Fasher, has resulted in over 50 serious injuries and many deaths. In South Darfur’s state’s capital Nyala, where the RSF reportedly took control over SAF’s base, the army called on residents in the city centre to leave their homes and move to safer locations.

Calling on the international community to ensure the safety of the people in the region, Adam Rojal, spokesperson of the General Coordination of IDPs and Refugee camps, said: “We have lost trust in the warring parties. (T)he army and the RSF are the ones who committed genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crimes in Darfur, and forced us to leave our villages and agricultural lands.” Speaking on behalf of the displaced, he also expressed the loss of trust in the civilian parties, who are seeking a partnership with the army and the RSF.

International Community fails to acknowledge demands of the pro-democracy mass-movement

Nevertheless, the international community persists in calling on these very forces to come together in an agreement to rule Sudan jointly. Speaking at a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Monday from the G-7 trip in Japan, the US State Secretary Antony Blinken called on the SAF and the RSF to “return to talks, talks that were very promising in putting Sudan on the path to a full transition to a civilian-led government.

Joseph Borrel, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said: “In the past months, Sudanese parties, including SAF and RSF, have made tremendous efforts to bring back the country toward the path of democracy through agreeing the framework agreement, paving the way towards a civilian-led government.”

The UN has also been using the term “civilian-led”, instead of just “civilian”, indicating that the security forces will continue to have a share in state power in the kind of government envisaged in partnership with the FFC in the framework agreement. If a final agreement is concluded and a government is formed on the basis of this agreement, it is expected to be some variation of the short-lived joint civilian-military government that was ousted with the coup in October 2021.

Defence, police, foreign policy and much of the economy had remained under the control of the military in this government, even though the Prime Minister and most cabinet ministers were civilians chosen by the FFC. Such a government, SCP maintains, will only serve to legitimise the structure of the military rule by giving it a civilian facade.

In fact, according to SCP’s analysis, this willingness of the right-wing parties to legitimise the military junta led by Burhan and Hemeti in exchange for a share in power is an important factor that has brought Sudan to this bloody juncture.

A network of over 5,000 neighbourhood Resistance Committees (RCs) – which had been leading the mass-demonstrations since the coup in October 2021 with the slogan “No Negotiations, No Compromise, No Partnership” with the military – cautioned people to not get duped into backing any of the warring parties.

“We are against military solutions, and we don’t stand behind any gun,” it said, stressing “the need to end the militarisation of political and economic life” by forcing “the military establishment out of politics.”

While reiterating the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire – which has been urged by the African Union (AU), EU, UK, US, Russia, China and civilian political forces within the country – SCP insists that the RSF should be dissolved and not integrated into the army. And the army, it reiterated in its statement, should be forced back to the barracks and should not be ceded any political power.

Regional left forces extend solidarity.

“The armed conflict is the culmination of a process of both open and obscured clashes supported by the local classes and the most reactionary political circles linked to comprador and corrupt regional alliances,” read a joint statement by left and progressive parties and organisations from other countries in the region.

These include Tunisia, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Egypt in Africa, and Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain and Kuwait in West Asia.

The 16 regional organisations said they renewed their “support for the revolutionary forces in Sudan, led by the Sudanese Communist Party, which has remained an authentic expression of the coherent revolutionary position and developments, including the armed conflict, have confirmed the correctness of its positions.”

Its statement ended by calling “on all progressive forces to strengthen support for the Sudanese people and their revolution, and to confront all forms of regional and international interference in order to interrupt the revolutionary process, as happened with the rest of the Arab revolutions, as happened with the rest of the Arab revolutions, in order to perpetuate control over the region.”

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