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Sudan’s Army and Rival Force Clash, Raising Fears of Wider Conflict

Sudan’s military and a powerful paramilitary force engaged in fierce fighting Saturday in the capital and elsewhere in country, serving a new blow to hopes of a transition to democracy and raising fears of a wider conflict. A doctors’ group said at least three people were killed and dozens injured.

The clashes capped months of heightened tensions between the armed forces and 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 had been derailed by an October 2021 military coup.

The sound of heavy firing could be heard throughout the day Saturday across the capital, Khartoum, and its sister city of Omdurman, where the military and the RSF have amassed tens of thousands of troops since the coup.

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Witnesses said fighters from both sides fired from armored vehicles and from machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks in fighting in densely populated areas. Some tanks were seen in Khartoum. The military said it launched strikes from planes and drones at RSF positions in and around the capital.

Residents described chaotic scenes. “Fire and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor in a public hospital in Omdurman. “All are running and seeking shelter.”

“We haven’t seen such battles in Khartoum before,” said Khartoum resident Abdel-Hamid Mustafa.

One of the flashpoints was Khartoum International Airport. There was no formal announcement that the airport was closed, but major airlines suspended their flights. This included Sudan-bound flights from Egypt and Saudi Arabia which turned back after nearly landing at the airport, flight tracking data showed.

Saudi Arabia‘s national airline said one of its Airbus A330 aircraft was involved in what is called “an accident.” Video showed the plane on fire on the tarmac. Another plane also appeared to have caught fire during the fighting. Flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 identified it as a SkyUp Airlines Boeing 737. SkyUp is a Kyiv, Ukraine-based airline. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate said two civilians were killed at the airport, without specifying the circumstances. The syndicate said another man was shot to death in the state of North Kordofan.

The BBC reported that a correspondent for BBC News Arabic in Khartoum, Mohamed Osman, was beaten by a Sudanese soldier. The broadcaster said the army had stopped Osman’s car while he was en route to his work and that he was taken to army headquarters in Omdurman. While explaining his movements to officers, he was hit in the head from behind by a soldier, the BBC said.

The fighting comes after months of escalating tensions between the generals and years of political unrest after an October 2021 military coup.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats expressed extreme concern over the outbreak of violence. “We urge all actors to stop the violence immediately and avoid further escalations or troop mobilizations and continue talks to resolve outstanding issues,” Blinken wrote on Twitter.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres; the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell; the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat; the Arab League chief, Ahmed Aboul Gheit; and Qatar all called for a cease-fire and for both parties to return to negotiations to settle their dispute. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates called on those fighting in Sudan to exercise restraint and work toward a political solution in the county.

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

The military and the RSF traded blame for triggering the clashes, which centered in Khartoum but 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.

The tensions stem from a disagreement over how the RSF, headed by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan 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.

Saturday’s fighting began at a military base south of Khartoum. Clashes then spread across the capital, including around the military’s headquarters, the airport and the Republican Palace, the seat of the country’s presidency.

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 military, in turned, declared the RSF as a rebel force.

Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy for Sudan, and the Saudi ambassador in Sudan, Ali Bin Hassan Jaffar, were in contact with RSF chief Dagalo and Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the top military official, to try to end the violence, said a U.N. official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

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

“I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting,” he wrote, adding that the escalation is extremely dangerous.

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Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

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