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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Alamy Stock Photo Destroyed military vehicles are seen in southern in Khartoum, Sudan last week.
# Explainer
Explainer: How did violence erupt in Sudan and why have countries decided to evacuate citizens?
Ireland is among countries currently evacuating citizens from the northeast African country due to the conflict.

FIGHTING HAS CONTINUED into a second week in Sudan, with countries, including Ireland, now moving to evacuate diplomats and citizens amid fears of a further escalation. 

According to figures from the United Nations (UN), more than 420 people have been killed and over 3,700 wounded, amid fears of wider turmoil and a humanitarian disaster in the northeast African country, which is one of the world’s poorest nations.

Khartoum has seen some of the fiercest fighting with air strikes and tanks firing in densely packed districts. Most of its five million people are continuing to shelter at home in 35-degree heat without electricity, food or water.

The conflict is being fought by two opposing sides, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces under the command of General Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Hamdan Dagalo.

Despite international calls for a truce, efforts to impose a ceasefire before the end of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr failed last week.

Why has fighting broken out in Sudan?

Violence erupted between the country’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum last weekend.

It came after weeks of deepening tensions between military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his number two, paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, over the planned integration of the RSF into the regular army.

The pair took joint control of the country in 2021 when they orchestrated a coup, upending a fragile transition to civilian rule that had been started after the 2019 ousting of Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for nearly three decades.

sudans-military-leader-general-abdel-fattah-al-burhan-stands-at-the-podium-during-a-ceremony-to-sign-the-framework-agreement-between-military-rulers-and-civilian-powers-in-khartoum-sudan-december-5 Alamy Stock Photo General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Alamy Stock Photo

Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan, took the top job while Dagalo, from Darfur’s pastoralist camel-herding Arab Rizeigat people, assumed responsibility as his number two.

But joint rule has now collapsed due to the rivalry between the two men. 

“It was never a genuine alliance or partnership, they just had to tie their interests together to face the civilians as a united military front,” according to independent researcher and policy analyst Hamid Khalafallah.

Dagalo, commonly known as Hemeti, has since said the coup was a “mistake” that has failed to bring about change and invigorated remnants of Bashir’s regime.

deputy-head-of-sudans-sovereign-council-general-mohamed-hamdan-dagalo-speaks-during-a-press-conference-at-rapid-support-forces-head-quarter-in-khartoum-sudan-february-19-2023-reutersmohamed-nurel Alamy Stock Photo Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Alamy Stock Photo

As the army and civilian leaders came together to hammer out a deal to end the political crisis that began with the coup, the integration of the RSF into the regular army became a key sticking point.

For Alan Boswell, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, Daglo saw in the agreement an opportunity to become “more autonomous from the military” and enact “very large political ambitions”.

According to analyst Kholood Khair, a December framework agreement for the deal “ratcheted up tensions between Burhan and Hemeti,” when it “elevated Hemeti’s position into Burhan’s equal, rather than his deputy”.

Who is involved in the conflict?

Created in 2013, the RSF emerged from the Janjaweed fighters that now-jailed Islamist dictator Bashir unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in the western Darfur region a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.

The militiamen were part of a campaign of terror that saw Bashir indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Court.

The Military Balance+, compiled by International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), estimates that the army has 100,000 troops, compared with the RSF’s 40,000 fighters.

However, several experts have put forward the figure of 100,000 RSF troops, while giving numerical superiority to the army, or Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). 

But on the ground, neither side seems to have seized the advantage in over a week of fighting.

smoke-rises-in-omdurman-near-halfaya-bridge-during-clashes-between-the-paramilitary-rapid-support-forces-and-the-army-as-seen-from-khartoum-north-sudan-april-15-2023-reutersmohamed-nureldin-abda Alamy Stock Photo Smoke rises in Omdurman, near Halfaya Bridge, during clashes between the Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army. Alamy Stock Photo

In 2015, the heavily armed RSF was deployed alongside regular Sudanese forces in the civil war in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition, which helped boost Dagalo’s profile abroad.

According to experts, the force has also been involved in the conflict in neighbouring Libya.

The RSF has been accused of more atrocities since, in particular as part of a security crackdown after the ouster of Bashir, when at least 128 people were killed in a violent dispersal of a Khartoum sit-in in June 2019.

“The RSF has continued to grow stronger since 2019,” Boswell added.

Is the conflict likely to end any time soon?

Currently, there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. According to Aly Verjee of the Rift Valley Institute, neither the armed forces nor the RSF has much incentive to back down.

The two forces normally fight together against rebel groups in far-flung provinces, but this time they are in a race against time as they fight each other in Khartoum.

The RSF wants to prolong the conflict, while the army was aiming to use its warplanes to weaken the paramilitary force as quickly as possible, said Verjee.

“Hemeti… has an interest in stretching out the conflict” since the main difference “in capacity between the SAF and the RSF is air power”, said Verjee.

Jehanne Henry, a US human rights lawyer who has monitored Sudan for years, said the “doomsday scenarios run the gamut”.

If the army wins, “Burhan and his colleagues will re-install old regime Islamists” and ignore international pressure, as they did during decades of international embargo under Bashir’s rule.

“At best, they could make a flimsy pretence of appointing some allied civilians,” Henry said.

The other possibility was that the RSF win, but that scenario was seen as less likely, she added.

In such a case, “they won’t go down easily, and could draw out the conflict, allying with other armed groups in peripheral areas”.

Why have countries decided to evacuate citizens now?

With continued clashes and no ceasefire on the cards, countries have moved early to evacuate diplomats, embassy staff and citizens from Sudan.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia said it evacuated 157 people, including 91 Saudi nationals and citizens of other countries. 

US special forces evacuated some 70 US embassy staff from Khartoum to an undisclosed location in Ethiopia early on Sunday, while the UK evacuated a number of British diplomats and their families.

Two French flights took off on Sunday from Khartoum to Djibouti, carrying about 200 people from various countries, and more are planned for today.

Germany’s foreign ministry said a military plane carrying 101 German diplomatic staff, family members and citizens of partner countries who were evacuated from Sudan via Jordan has landed safely in Berlin.

an-air-force-airbus-carrying-german-citizens-evacuated-from-sudan-lands-at-berlin-brandenburg-airport-in-schonefeld-germany-monday-april-24-2023-jrg-carstensendpa-via-ap Alamy Stock Photo An Air Force Airbus carrying German citizens evacuated from Sudan lands at Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Schonefeld. Alamy Stock Photo

About 100 people were flown out of Khartoum by Spanish military aircraft – more than 30 Spaniards and the rest from Portugal, Italy, Poland, Ireland, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina, the foreign ministry said.

This morning, Tánaiste Micheál Martin confirmed that 50 Irish citizens had been evacuated since yesterday with the support of France and Spain.

He estimated that around 150 Irish citizens remain in Sudan and urged citizens to stay indoors until there is further information, adding that it will take “days” to evacuate all Irish citizens.

Meanwhile, the UN has said that between 10,000 and 20,000 people have fled fighting to Sudan’s western neighbour Chad.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said eastern Chad was already hosting 400,000 Sudanese refugees, and the new arrivals were placing additional strain on the country’s overstretched public services and resources.

Sudan is one the world’s poorest countries, with more than one-third of its population facing a growing hunger crisis.

“Millions of civilians are caught in the crossfire and fast running out of basic necessities,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said Thursday.

Cameron Hudson of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told AFP he was “fully expecting a massive exodus of civilians” once the first lasting ceasefire takes hold.

“I am expecting millions of people to try to cross borders,” he said.

What happens next?

According to Boswell, “this is an existential power struggle on both sides”.

Many suspect that the RSF may be receiving ammunition and supplies from abroad, via neighbouring nations.

Dagalo met recently with the son of eastern Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar, but Haftar’s spokesman Ahmad al-Mesmari, said last week the force “categorically denies” it was backing either side.

Sudan’s west, where the RSF also holds positions on the Chadian border, is also still “awash in weapons”, said Eric Reeves, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute think tank.

Daglo will try “to use his connection to Chad and his power in Darfur to secure a supply line”, he added.

destroyed-military-vehicles-are-seen-in-southern-in-khartoum-sudan-thursday-april-20-2023-the-latest-attempt-at-a-cease-fire-between-the-rival-sudanese-forces-faltered-as-gunfire-rattled-the-capi Alamy Stock Photo Destroyed military vehicles are seen in southern in Khartoum. Alamy Stock Photo

With neither general backing down, Khair finds it “unlikely they’ll come to the negotiating table without one or both of them suffering heavy losses”.

Though both continue to make “bellicose” statements against each other, she told AFP, “neither of them will come out of this unscathed”.

The longer they battle it out in city streets, she said, the higher the civilian toll climbs and the harder it will be for either general to rule over the wreckage.

“Both sides are strong enough that any war between them will be extremely costly, deadly and long,” said Boswell.

Even with a partial victory for either side in Khartoum, “war will continue elsewhere in the country”, dividing up Sudan into strongholds, he added.

“We’re already in worst case scenario territory, and from here the scenarios only get grimmer and grimmer,” he said, warning the impact will ripple throughout the region.

If the conflict drags on, more people in the extremely fragmented Sudanese society might take up arms, said British analyst Alex de Waal.

“There are two protagonists,” he told AFP. “If the conflict continues, the situation will quickly become more complex.”

Each side is a coalition of several different groups, de Waal noted, who may shift their alliances potentially considering “ethnic factors”.

The New York-based Soufan Center warned of “meddling from external states, warlords, armed militias and a range of other violent non-state actors”.

“A failure by commanders to rein in their fighters could further prolong violence,” the think tank said.

Additional reporting by © AFP 2023 and the Press Association

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