There are fears that the conflict in Sudan could escalate to include militia groups currently in Libya and other neighbouring countries.
The fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under the command of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (commonly known as Hemedti) in Khartoum and other areas of Sudan is in its second week.
The violence has forced foreign diplomatic missions to leave the country and evacuate their citizens amidst fears that the escalation of the conflict, for the time being contained between the two sides, will expand to include new armed groups that have so far remained on the sidelines. These include militias deployed in Libya.
There are more than 10,000 fighters from armed Sudanese groups located in central, southern, and eastern Libya, as documented by UN experts in reports issued by the Libya Sanctions Committee under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of 2011.
According to the UN reports, at least five armed Sudanese groups, most of which are from Darfur, have combatants based in Libya. They include the RSF led by Hemedti, the Sudan Liberation Movement (Al-Nur), the Sudanese Liberation Movement (Minni Minnawi), the Sudan Liberation Forces (SLF) led by Abu Bakr Hagar, and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
UN reports confirm that these groups previously cooperated with forces of the Libyan National Army under Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar during the fighting in Libya until a UN-sponsored ceasefire was signed in October 2020.
The Al-Nur faction in Libya is led by Youssef Ahmed Youssef, known as Bakr Jakola, and is based in the region of Waw Al-Namus in the south of the country. Three hundred members of the Minni Minnawi militia are under the command of Jibril Ishak and located in the Al-Jafrah region.
The SLF combatants are led by Al-Taher Abu Bakr Hajar and number between 500 and 700 fighters. The group also has units in Sabha, Marzak and Om Al-Araneb. Members of the JEM forces move between eastern and western Libya under the command of Abdel-Karim Jalawi Konti.
While four Sudanese militia groups fought alongside the Libyan National Army under Haftar, JEM elements aligned with the former Government of National Accord against Haftar’s forces.
The Juba Agreement signed in November 2020 between the Transitional Government in Sudan and the Sudanese armed factions after the overthrow of former president Omar Al-Bashir resulted in the departure of dozens of Sudanese combatants from southern Libya to Darfur via Chad.
But local sources report that Sudanese fighters remain in the areas of Al-Jafra, southern Sabha and Waw Al-Namus.
During the unrest in southern Libya, especially in Marzak and Sabha, there were clashes between Sudanese armed groups and their counterparts from Chad due to disputes over funding, weapons, and the control over smuggling routes in the sprawling region to the south.
With the fighting continuing in Khartoum, so far none of these militia groups have engaged in the battles between the RSF and the Sudanese Army. Reports in the Western media have accused Haftar of supporting Hemedti and linked a visit by Al-Siddik Khalifa Haftar, son of the Field Marshal, to Khartoum in early April and a meeting he held with Hemedti over Iftar during Ramadan.
On 20 April, General Shamseddin Kabashi, a member of the Transitional Sovereignty Council in Sudan, accused two neighbouring countries to the west of the country of supporting the RSF, though without naming them.
Sudanese sources have said that Haftar’s son will provide large sums to Sudan’s Merrekh Sports Club, of which he is honorary president. The US media has said that this is evidence of Libya’s support for Hemedti.
Some US newspapers see it as evidence of ties between the two men and the Russian Wagner Group, as well as to gold-mining operations in southern Libya.
Haftar issued a statement on Saturday denying these media reports and his alleged bias towards any party in the Sudanese conflict. He pledged to mediate to end the fighting and work on launching a dialogue through peaceful means.
Haftar also called for the formation of a joint mediation committee to include the Arab League and African Union that would exert all efforts to reach a ceasefire and end the crisis with a view to protecting the security, stability and integrity of Sudan.
Speaking to the regional media, Haftar’s son denied that his trip to Khartoum or meeting with Hemedti had gone beyond discussing sports matters or had had any political agenda. He said the trip was upon an invitation from the Merrekh Club to reciprocate for the hospitality its members had received in Benghazi during matches in the Africa Cup.
None of the Sudanese militias in Libya have issued statements about the conflict at home, even though some key figures of these groups in Khartoum have urged an end to the fighting and the start of negotiations.
If the militias return from Libya to Sudan, tensions will likely be exacerbated, especially in Darfur where the Sudanese Army has declared its control over border points and commercial centres as part of an effort to prevent border areas from being used to send reinforcements to the RSF from outside Sudan.
The return of the Sudanese armed groups would also raise problems in Libya and Chad, where the groups derive their strength from social ties and tribal extensions in a region that provides a supply of fighters, most of them joining due to tribal backgrounds and border rivalries.
Many consider the border areas to be major sources of funding for their activities, either through smuggling operations or by controlling the mining areas that are spread along the Libyan-Chadian border.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly