Fierce fighting has continued in Sudan’s capital despite an hours-long pause to address humanitarian needs including the evacuation of wounded, on the second day of battles that left dozens killed.
Clashes that started on Saturday between the armed forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) sparked an international outcry and regional concern, including border closures by neighbours Egypt and Chad.
It was the first such outbreak since both joined forces to remove Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and was sparked by a disagreement over the integration of the RSF into the military as part of a transition towards civilian rule.
Deafening explosions and intense gunfire rattled buildings in the capital Khartoum’s densely-populated northern and southern suburbs as tanks rumbled on the streets and fighter jets roared overhead, witnesses said.
Fighting continued after nightfall on Sunday, as Sudanese hunkered down in their homes with fears of a prolonged conflict that could plunge the country into deeper chaos, dashing long-held hopes for a transition to civilian-led democracy.
After Saturday’s killing of three World Food Programme workers, the agency said it was suspending operations in the impoverished country.
Violence erupted early on Saturday following weeks of power struggles between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, who heads the heavily-armed RSF. Each accused the other of starting the fight.
’56 civilians killed’
The pro-democracy Central Committee of Sudan Doctors reported 56 civilians killed as well as “tens of deaths” among security forces, and around 600 wounded.
Late Sunday afternoon the army said they had “agreed to a United Nations proposal to open safe passage for humanitarian cases”, including the evacuation of wounded, for three hours which ended at 17:00 GMT.
RSF confirmed the measure and both sides maintained their right to “respond in the event of transgressions” from the other side.
Despite the pause, heavy gunfire could still be heard in central Khartoum near the airport, and dense black smoke billowed from the surrounding area.
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Khartoum, said the three-hour humanitarian ceasefire announced by the warring sides has come to an end.
“The duration for the short period of ceasefire has already passed. It was from around four o’clock local time to seven. Within that three-hour period, we were able to hear the sounds of heavy artillery in various parts of the capital, Khartoum. We were able to see smoke rising from the southern and northern parts of the city,” Morgan said.
“The whole purpose of the three-hour ceasefire period was to allow those who were trapped around the vicinity of the presidential palace, around the vicinity of the general command of the army to be able to escape – as well as those trapped in areas near the RSF bases which are facing air strikes by the Sudanese army fighter jets.”
Dagalo’s RSF says it has seized the presidential palace, Khartoum airport and other strategic locations, but the army insists it is still in control.
Fighting also erupted in the western Darfur region and in the eastern border state of Kassala, where witness Hussein Saleh said the army had fired artillery at a paramilitary camp.
WFP employees killed
The UN said three employees of its World Food Programme (WFP) had been killed on Saturday in clashes in North Darfur and announced a “temporary halt to all operations in Sudan”.
After their deaths as well those of as other civilians, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “justice without delay”. He had earlier warned that an escalation in the fighting would “further aggravate the already precarious humanitarian situation”.
The UN says one-third of Sudan’s population is in need of humanitarian aid.
Created in 2013, the RSF emerged from the so-called Janjaweed militia that then-President al-Bashir unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in Darfur a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.
The RSF’s planned integration into the regular army was a key element of talks to finalise a deal that would hopefully restore Sudan’s civilian transition and end the political-economic crisis sparked by the military’s 2021 coup by al-Burhan and Dagalo.
Appeals to end the fighting have come from across the region and the globe, including the United States, Britain, China, the European Union and Russia, while Pope Francis said he was following the events “with concern” and urged dialogue.
After a meeting on the situation in Sudan, the African Union said a senior official would “immediately” travel there on a ceasefire mission.
The October 2021 coup triggered international aid cuts and sparked near-weekly protests met by a deadly crackdown.
Al-Burhan, who rose through the ranks under the three-decade rule of the now-jailed al-Bashir, has said the coup was “necessary” to include more factions in politics.
Dagalo later called the coup a “mistake” that failed to bring about change and reinvigorated remnants of al-Bashir’s governments removed by the army in 2019 following mass protests.