KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — As explosions and gunfire thundered outside, Sudanese in the capital Khartoum and other cities huddled in their homes for a third day Monday, while the army and a powerful rival force battled in the streets for control of the country.
At least 97 civilians have been killed in the crossfire between the two warring sides fighting it out in the densely populated urban area with heavy machine guns, tanks, artillery and airstrikes. But the toll is likely much higher because there are many bodies in the streets around central Khartoum that no one can reach because of the clashes, said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, secretary of the Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate, which has tracked casualties. There has been no official word on the number of combatants killed.
The sudden explosion of violence over the weekend between the nation’s two top generals, each backed by tens of thousands of fighters, trapped millions of people in their homes or wherever they could find shelter. For many, supplies were running out.
“Gunfire and shelling are everywhere,” Awadeya Mahmoud Koko, head of a union for thousands of tea vendors and other food workers, said from her home in a southern district of Khartoum.
She said a shell stuck a neighbor’s house Sunday, killing at least three people. “We couldn’t take them to a hospital or bury them.”
In central Khartoum, sustained gunfire erupted and white smoke rose near the main military headquarters, a major battle front. Nearby, at least 88 students and staffers have been trapped in the engineering college library at Khartoum University since the start of fighting, one of the students said in a video posted online Monday. One student was killed by clashes outside and another wounded, he said. The group does not have food or water, he said, showing a room full of people sleeping on the floor.
Even in a country with a long history of civil strife, the scenes of fighting in the capital and its adjoining city Omdurman across the Nile River were unprecedented. The turmoil comes just days before Sudanese were to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.
The clashes are part of a power struggle between Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the armed forces, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group. The two generals are former allies who jointly orchestrated an October 2021 military coup that derailed Sudan’s transition to democracy. The violence now threatens to throw the country into a wider civil conflict just as Sudanese were trying to revive the drive for a democratic, civilian government after decades of military rule.
Both generals have dug in, saying they would not negotiate a truce and ignoring international calls to tell their forces to stand down — even from their powerful foreign backers. Instead, each has thrown insults at the other and demanded the other’s surrender.
Dagalo, whose forces grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias in Sudan’s Darfur region, portrayed himself in a statement on Twitter on Monday as a defender of democracy and branded Burhan as the aggressor and a “radical Islamist.” Pro-democracy activists have noted that both generals have a long history of human rights abuses.
Heavy gunbattles raged in multiple parts of the capital and Omdurman, where the two sides have brought in tens of thousands of troops, positioning them in nearly every neighborhood.
Hadia Saeed, a housewife, said she and her three children were hunkered down in one room on the ground floor of their home for fear of the shelling and gunfire continually shaking their Bahri district in north Khartoum. They have food for a few more days, but “after that we don’t know what to do,” she said.
Fighting has been particularly fierce around each side’s main bases, located amid civilian areas, and at strategic government buildings.
The military on Monday claimed to have secured the main television building in Omdurman, fending off RSF fighters trying to seize the building for days. State-run Sudan TV resumed broadcasting.
The military scored a significant gain Sunday when the RSF said it abandoned its main barracks and base, in Omdurman, which the armed forces had pounded with airstrikes. Online videos Monday purported to show the bodies of dozens of men said to be RSF fighters at the base, strewn over beds, the floor of a clinic and outside in a yard. The authenticity of the videos could not be confirmed independently.
The doctors’ syndicate said health care facilities in Khartoum and elsewhere across the country have sustained significant damage. At least two major hospitals in the capital have shut down after being hit by shelling, it said.
The military and RSF were also fighting in most major centers around the country, including in the western Darfur region and parts of the north and the east, by the borders with Egypt and Ethiopia. Battles raged Monday around a strategic airbase in Merowe, some 350 kilometers (215 miles) northwest of the capital, with both sides claiming control of the facility.
Only four years ago, Sudan inspired hope after a popular uprising helped depose long-time autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir.
But the turmoil since, especially the 2021 coup, has frustrated the democracy drive and wrecked the economy. A third of the population — around 16 million people — now depends on humanitarian assistance in the resource-rich nation strategically located at the crossroads of Africa and the Arab world.
The new violence only increases the suffering. Over the weekend, the World Food Program suspended operations in Sudan after three employees were killed in Darfur. On Monday, the International Rescue Committee said it was halting its work, with the exception of a refugee camp in the southeast.
Top diplomats urged the sides to stop fighting, including the U.S. secretary of state, the U.N. secretary-general, the EU foreign policy chief, the head of the Arab League and the head of the African Union Commission. The U.N. Security Council was to discuss the developments in Sudan later Monday.
“People in Sudan want the military back in the barracks,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a meeting of the Group of Seven wealthy nations in Japan on Monday. “They want democracy. They want the civilian-led government, Sudan needs to return to that path.”
In recent months, negotiations had been under way to get back on a path to democracy. Under international pressure, Burhan and Dagalo agreed to a framework agreement with political parties and pro-democracy groups.
However, the deal was vague on key points of dispute, including how the RSF would be integrated into the armed forces and who would have final control. The signing of the deal was put off repeatedly as tensions rose between the generals.
___ Magdy reported from Cairo.
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