Sudanese flee their homes as truce fails, fighting rages

AP , Wednesday 19 Apr 2023

Terrified Sudanese who have been trapped for days in their homes by fighting in the capital of Khartoum fled on Wednesday, hauling out whatever belongings they could carry and trying to get out of the city, after an internationally brokered truce failed.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows fires burning at Khartoum International Airport in Khartoum, Sudan, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. AP

Explosions shook the city as the army and a rival paramilitary force battled for a fifth day in the streets.

The swift failure of the 24-hour cease-fire, despite pressure from the United States and regional powers, suggested that Sudan's two top generals were determined to crush each other in a potentially prolonged fight for control of the country. It also underscored the inability of the international community to force a stop to the violence, with millions of people caught in the crossfire.

Residents of multiple neighborhoods in Khartoum told The Associated Press they could see hundreds of people, including women and children, leaving their homes, carrying luggage, some leaving by foot, others crowding into vehicles. Residents had been desperately holding out in hopes for a halt in the mayhem on their doorsteps, but with food and other supplies running low and no sign of respite, it appeared many had decided to risk making an escape.

“Khartoum has become a ghost city,” said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, secretary of the Doctors’ Syndicate, who is still in the capital. 

Nearly 300 people have been killed in the past five days, the U.N. health agency said, but the toll is likely higher, since many bodies have been left in the streets, unreachable because of clashes.

Residents said the military was pounding positions of the opposing Rapid Support Forces with airstrikes since early Wednesday, while gunbattles continued to rage outside the main military headquarters in central Khartoum, which the RSF has tried repeatedly to capture. 

At the nearby airport, another front line, palls of black smoke rose and a damaged aircraft was in flames, according to satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs PBC. A high-rise in the city center was on fire with burning debris falling from its top floors, according to footage by the Al Arabiya news network. Fierce clashes were also reported around the state television building across the Nile River in the adjacent city Omdurman. 

The army's monopoly on air power has appeared to give it an edge in fighting in Khartoum and Omdurman, enabling it to take several RSF bases over the past few days. But tens of thousands of fighters from the paramilitary force are fanned out across neighborhoods. 

The result has been scenes of chaos. Residents have spoken of armed men looting shops and attacking anyone found on the streets. 

“They take whatever they can, and if you resist, they kill you,” said Mahasen Ali, a tea vendor. She said many in her south Khartoum neighborhood have left their homes to take refuge in open areas, hoping to be safe from shelling hitting buildings. Others fled the city to stay with relatives elsewhere, she said. 

A 24-hour cease-fire was to have been in effect from sundown Tuesday to sundown Wednesday. It was the most concrete attempt yet to bring a pause that it was hoped could be expanded into a longer truce. 

It came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke separately by phone with the two rivals — the leader of the armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the head of the Rapid Support Forces, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. Egypt, which backs the Sudanese military, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have close ties to the RSF, have also been calling on all sides to stand down. 

But fighting continued after the intended start of the truce and through the night. Each side blamed the other for the failure. 

The RSF said it has agreed on a day-long truce to take effect Thursday at 6 p.m. local time. There was no immediate comment from the military.

Aid agencies and foreigners, including diplomats, have also been trapped in the fighting.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders, or MSF after its French name, said in a tweet that its compound in Nyala in the western Darfur region had been raided by armed men who stole vehicles and office equipment and looted a warehouse storing medical supplies. The International Committee of the Red Cross said its office in Niyala was also looted, with one vehicle taken.

Darfur, which has been the scene of heavy fighting since the weekend, is a stronghold of the RSF, where the force had its origins among the Janjaweed militias, accused of atrocities during the long conflict there. 

German media, including the DPA news agency, reported that three A400M transport planes were dispatched to evacuate German citizens from Khartoum, but turned around Wednesday due to security concerns in Khartoum. Japan said it was preparing to send military aircraft to evacuate about 60 Japanese nationals. 

In Brussels, Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, confirmed reports that a senior EU official had been shot and wounded in Sudan. Spinant did not provide details. 

The New York Times identified the official as Wim Fransen, a Belgian national. The report said Fransen was receiving medical treatment for serious injuries. It said he had gone missing on Sunday evening and that his colleagues tracked him down Tuesday. 

Another spokeswoman said the EU office in Khartoum is still operating and the delegation is not being evacuated. The EU ambassador, who was assaulted when gunmen broke into his residence several days ago, is back at work, she said. 

Hospitals in Khartoum are running dangerously low on medical supplies, often operating without power and clean water, the ICRC said in a statement. Dozens of health care facilities in Khartoum and around the country have stopped functioning because they are close to clashes, the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate said Wednesday. At least nine hospitals were bombed, it said. 

“Our urgent priority is to get medical assistance to hospitals and try to make repairs to their water and power lines so they can treat the wounded," said Patrick Youssef, the ICRC's Africa regional director. But fighting has made it impossible to reach the facilities. 

The U.N.‘s World Health Organization said Wednesday at least 296 people have been killed and more than 3,000 wounded since fighting began, without offering a breakdown of civilians and combatants killed. The Doctors’ Syndicate, which monitors casualties, said Tuesday that at least 174 civilians have been killed and hundreds wounded. 

The conflict between the military and the RSF has once again derailed Sudan’s transition to democratic rule after decades of dictatorship and civil war. 

A popular uprising four years ago helped depose long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir. But Burhan and Dagalo joined to carry out a 2021 coup. Both generals have a long history of human rights abuses, and their forces have cracked down on pro-democracy activists.

Under international pressure, Burhan and Dagalo recently agreed to a framework agreement with political parties and pro-democracy groups. But the signing was repeatedly delayed as tensions rose over the integration of the RSF into the armed forces and the future chain of command. ___ Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

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