Airstrikes and artillery rocked Khartoum on Saturday as Sudan entered a third week of fighting between rival military forces despite a cease-fire, prompting more civilians to flee and renewed warnings of wider instability if the war is not stopped.
As dark smoke rose over Khartoum, a U.N. envoy offered a possible flicker of hope, saying the warring sides that have so far shown no sign of compromise were now more open to negotiations – though no date had been set.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands wounded since April 15 when a long-simmering power struggle between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into conflict.
The fighting has pitched Sudan toward a civil war, derailing an internationally-backed transition aimed at establishing a democratic government and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing into neighboring countries.
“I’m afraid that one day I’m asleep and I wake up to a bomb falling on my house,” said a man named Khalid, speaking to Reuters from Khartoum where he has stayed because his elderly grandmother and ill sister would suffer on the long and costly trip out.
“That’s my deepest fear right now. That’s all that I think of. That’s why I can’t sleep at night.”
The sides have continued to battle it out during a series of cease-fires mediated by foreign powers, notably the United States. The latest 72-hour truce expires at midnight Sunday.
The RSF said in a statement on Saturday it had shot down an army warplane in Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, and accused the army of violating the cease-fire with an attack there. The army did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters could not independently verify the RSF report.
The army has previously blamed the RSF for violations and said on Saturday its forces were continuing to work to end “the rebellion.”
Despite the fighting, violence was less intense in the capital area than in recent days, residents said.
Residents also reported relative calm in the city of El Geneina in the western Darfur region after days of fighting there, allowing people to bury the dead. The Darfur Bar Association said the death toll had reached 200, and thousands had been wounded.
The prospects of negotiations between the army and paramilitary have so far seemed bleak.
On Friday, army leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said he would never sit down with the RSF’s “rebel” leader, referring to General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. The RSF chief in turn said he would talk only after the army ceased hostilities.
Nonetheless, the U.N. special representative in Sudan, Volker Perthes, told Reuters he had recently sensed a change in the sides’ attitudes, and they were more open to negotiations, and were saying they would accept “some form of talks.”
“The word ‘negotiations’ or ‘talks’ was not there in their discourse in the first week or so,” Perthes said.
Not a ‘small rebellion’
Perthes said the sides had nominated representatives for talks which had been suggested for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, or Juba in South Sudan, though he said there was a practical question over whether they could get there to “actually sit together.”
The immediate task, Perthes said, was to develop a monitoring mechanism for cease-fires.
“They have both accepted that this war cannot continue.”
At least 528 people have been killed and 4,599 wounded, the health ministry said. The United Nations has reported a similar number of dead, but believes the real toll is much higher.
More than 75,000 people had been internally displaced by the fighting, the United Nations reported.
Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, speaking at a conference in Nairobi, said the war must stop, warning of its ramifications not just in Sudan but in the region.
“This is a huge country, very diverse … I think it will be a nightmare for the world,” he said.
“This is not a war between an army and small rebellion. It is almost like two armies that are “well trained and well armed.”
Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s minister for Africa, warned of “vast areas of disorder, chaos and misery” if the fighting continued.
“Those are circumstances, as we’ve seen elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, where the terrorist thrives so I think there is every reason to be extremely anxious on that score,” he said, speaking to journalists at the Nairobi conference.
“The whole of the international system is looking at ways of stopping this fighting.”
The fighting has also reawakened a two-decade-old conflict in Darfur with fighting in several cities over the past two weeks.
Residents in the Darfur city of El Geneina said on Saturday major fighting appeared to have stopped, and some people had returned home, after a militia attack destroyed the city’s market, hospital, and other public buildings.
Speaking at a camp in Chad after fleeing Darfur, pregnant 23-year-old Zamzam Adam said she was stranded, in labor, and alone as armed militias attacked and pillaged her village near El Geneina. “In our village, armed people came and burned and looted houses and we were forced to flee,” said Adam.
Foreign governments have organized a major evacuation of expatriates. Saudi state broadcaster Alekhbaiya said that a passenger ship with 1,982 people on board from 17 countries would arrive at Jeddah port on Saturday, adding to 5,000 others who had already arrived.