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Escalating violence and civilian casualties in Sudan raise concerns of broadening conflict

Incidents of armed clashes in the southern region and communal violence in the volatile Darfur area have ignited apprehensions that various communities along the border regions of Sudan, the third largest country in Africa, are being inexorably drawn into a relentless struggle between two rival military generals.

Fierce fighting has erupted in North Kordofan state, pitting militias aligned with the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) against local Sudanese army brigades. El Obeid, the strategically significant state capital, has become the focal point of these hostilities.

El Obeid is positioned along vital communication routes connecting Khartoum with Darfur, the home of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, and a significant number of his fighters. Furthermore, it houses an airstrip crucial for the army’s air superiority, rendering it a valuable target for the RSF.

Medical professionals in El Obeid reported that the initial bout of fighting primarily centered around the El Abyad neighborhood, resulting in the deaths of ten individuals, including seven children, and leaving over twenty people injured. The local hospital struggled to cope with the influx of casualties, grappling with power outages due to depleted fuel supplies for generators and a scarcity of blood.

In a subsequent round of clashes on Sunday, the RSF launched an attack on a village south of El Obeid, claiming the lives of fifteen people. Local observers suggest that the paramilitary group’s objective is to secure access points to the town before launching a more significant offensive.

Although the reported nationwide death toll from the past four weeks of fighting stands at 700, the actual figure is presumed to be considerably higher, with many fatalities going unrecorded, particularly in remote areas. Talks between army and RSF representatives in Saudi Arabia aim solely to secure a temporary ceasefire to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to affected civilians.

In Darfur, mounting evidence indicates that the power struggle between the two factions vying for control in Khartoum is exacerbating preexisting social, economic, and ethnic divisions.

Observers draw parallels between the ongoing violence and the events of 2003-2006 when over 300,000 people were killed, and millions were displaced following then-dictator Omar al-Bashir’s deployment of fighters, predominantly recruited from Arab tribes, against rebels. The RSF originated from these Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed.

El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, witnessed a temporary truce between the RSF and the army, which, unfortunately, led to communal clashes, according to local activists and residents.

Numerous attacks have targeted camps housing individuals displaced by previous violence, the majority of whom do not identify as Arab. Additionally, systematic efforts to dismantle humanitarian infrastructure have been observed.

In Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, the region’s largest market has been decimated, a medical supply warehouse razed by fire, and government institutions, private businesses, national and international organizations, as well as some stores, have fallen victim to looting.

A disturbing development indicating a potential escalation in violence is the reported mobilization of rebel fighters loyal to Mini Arko Minnawi, a prominent figure in the Darfur conflict during the 2000s. These fighters are reportedly en route from the capital to Darfur with the aim of safeguarding the region and its people. Reports have also emerged of civilians arming themselves in a bid to protect their lives, families, and property.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, hailing from Darfur’s Arab Rizeigat community, rose to prominence as part of the Janjaweed militia. His aspiration to gain control over the entirety of Sudan following the fall of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 has been characterized as an endeavor by previously marginalized Arab groups to seize the country’s crumbling state and its valuable resources from the dominant Khartoum elite.

Non-Arab populations on the fringes of society fear becoming “double losers” in the current conflict, explained an activist based in Darfur, who requested anonymity. The ongoing battle for Darfur has intensified due to the region’s potential significance as a stronghold for Dagalo if the RSF experiences setbacks elsewhere. The RSF has invested considerable resources in consolidating its infrastructure and garnering support in this particular stronghold.

The escalating communal violence and rising civilian casualties in Sudan, coupled with the power struggle between rival generals, paint a distressing picture of a nation teetering on the edge of widespread conflict. The ramifications of this unfolding crisis could be devastating, not only for Sudan but for the stability of the entire region. Urgent diplomatic efforts and a comprehensive approach to address the root causes of the conflict are imperative to prevent further bloodshed and protect vulnerable communities caught in the crossfire.

Since 15 April 2023, AOAV has recorded 14 incidents of explosive violence in Sudan (13 in Khartoum and one in Omdurban), which have caused at least 2,021 civilian casualties – 197 of whom were killed, and 1,824 injured. Civilians and civilian objects in Khartoum, including hospitals and clinics, have been continuously targeted in air strikes, and mortar and rocket attacks, with multiple cease-fires crumbling within hours. 

The use of combined explosive weapons, in particular the use of artillery and mortar shells alongside airstrikes since April 2023, has caused the vast majority of civilian harm: 1,980 civilian casualties are attributed to combined explosive weapons.

Dr. Iain Overton of AOAV said of the rising violence: “the incidents of armed clashes in the southern region and communal violence in Darfur have ignited grave concerns that communities along Sudan’s border regions are being inexorably drawn into a relentless struggle between rival military generals. The situation in El Obeid, with its strategic significance and targeting by the Rapid Support Forces, exemplifies the gravity of the conflict. The reported death toll, unrecorded fatalities, and attacks on displaced camps underscore the urgent need for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid. The power struggle in Khartoum exacerbates social and ethnic divisions, reminiscent of past atrocities. The intensification of violence and the mobilisation of rebel fighters further fuels fears of an escalating crisis. The immediate diplomatic intervention and addressing of root causes are essential to prevent further bloodshed and protect vulnerable communities.”