KHARTOUM, Sudan — Fierce fighting erupted Saturday in Sudan’s capital between the military and the country’s powerful paramilitary force, raising fears of a wider conflict in the chaos-stricken country. A doctors’ group said at least three people were killed and dozens injured.
The clashes between the military and the Rapid Support Forces group capped months of heightened tensions between both sides that forced the delay of a deal with political parties to restore the country’s short-lived transition to democracy.
The sound of heavy firing could be heard across the capital, Khartoum, and its sister city of Omdurman, where both the military and the RSF have amassed tens of thousands of troops since an October 2021 military coup that derailed Sudan’s fragile path to democracy.
Residents described chaotic scenes in Khartoum and Omdurman as firing and explosions rang out in densely populated neighborhoods. “Fire and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor in a public hospital in Omdurman. “All are running and seeking shelter.”
Another Khartoum resident, Abdel-Hamid Mustafa, said soldiers from both sides on armored trucks were seen firing at each other in the streets and residential areas. “We haven’t seen such battles in Khartoum before,” she said
One of the flashpoints was Khartoum International Airport, where clashes grounded commercial Sudan-bound flights from Saudi Arabia turned back after nearly landing at the airport, flight tracking data showed Saturday.
Saudi Arabia’s national airline said one of its Airbus A330 aircraft was involved in “an accident.” Video showed the plane on fire on the tarmac. Another plane also appeared to have caught fire in the attack. 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 committee said in a statement that another man was shot to death in the state of North Kordofan.
Meanwhile, 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.
Former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was ousted in the 2021 coup, warned of a possible regional conflict if the fighting escalates. He urged the leaders of the military and the RSF to immediately cease hostilities.
“Shooting must stop immediately,” he said in a video message 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.
Current tensions between the military and the paramilitary stem from a disagreement over how the RSF, headed by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, should be integrated into the military and what authority should oversee the process. The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement with political groups.
The fighting began at a military base south of Khartoum, with both sides trading accusations of initiating an attack. Clashes then spread in many areas across the capital, including around the military’s headquarters, the airport and the Republican Palace, the seat of the country’s presidency.
“Khartoum has become a battlefield,” said Tahani Abass, a prominent Sudanese rights advocate who lives close to the military’s headquarters. “The situation is very dire, and we don’t know when it will be ended.”
The RSF alleged in a statement that its forces controlled many strategic places in Khartoum and the northern city of Merowe some 350 kilometers (215 miles) northwest of Khartoum. The military dismissed the claims as “lies.”
In a series of statements, the military also declared the RSF as a rebel force and unleashed the powerful air force against RSF positions in and around Khartoum.
Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy for Sudan, urged both parties for “an immediate cessation of fighting to ensure the safety of the Sudanese people and to spare the country from further violence.”
Perthes and Saudi Ambassador in Sudan, Ali Bin Hassan Jaffar, were leading communications with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the country’s top military official, and Dagalo to embark on a dialogue to settle their dispute, said a U.N. official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
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.
The U.S. Ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, wrote online that he was “currently sheltering in place with the Embassy team, as Sudanese throughout Khartoum and elsewhere are doing.” He urged bother sides to cease fire.
“Escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous,” Godfrey wrote. “I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting.”