Smoke rises over buildings during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum, Sudan April 17, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer
By Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir
KHARTOUM (Reuters) -A new attempt at a ceasefire in fierce fighting between Sudanese troops and paramilitary forces in Khartoum and elsewhere failed on Wednesday, leaving people fearful about dwindling food supplies and a breakdown in medical services.
The 24-hour ceasefire deal was supposed to come into effect at 6 p.m. local time (1600 GMT). Two eyewitnesses in separate areas of the capital told Reuters that fighting had continued.
Earlier in the day continuous bombardments could be heard in central Khartoum around the compound housing the army HQ and at the main airport, which has been fiercely contested and put out of action since fighting erupted at the weekend.
Thick smoke billowed into the sky and the streets were largely empty in the capital. Gunfire rattled in the south of the city, a Reuters witness said, while the army appeared to retake a key military airport in Sudan’s north, images on TV network al Arabiya showed.
Sudan’s military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, had said he was operating from the Khartoum army HQ. Reuters could not establish whether he was still there on Wednesday.
“The armed forces are responding to a new attack in the vicinity of the General Command,” the army said in a statement.
Huddled in their homes, residents of the capital, one of Africa’s largest cities, struggled with power cuts and worried how long food supplies would last.
“Today we were starting to run out of some essentials,” said architect Hadeel Mohamed, concerned for the safety of her brother who had gone to look for food.
The conflict stems from a power struggle between military leader Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) chief General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, over a plan to integrate the paramilitary fighters into the regular military.
Burhan heads a ruling council installed after the 2021 military coup and the 2019 ouster of veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir, while Hemedti, who analysts say may command more than 100,000 fighters, was his deputy on the council.
At least 270 people have died and 2,600 have been injured, Sudan’s health ministry estimates. Nine hospitals have been hit by artillery and 16 had to be evacuated, the Sudanese Doctors’ Union said, with none operating fully inside the capital.
The conflict has dashed hopes for progress towards democracy in Sudan, risks drawing in its neighbours and could play into regional competition between Russia and the United States. Sudan sits strategically between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Africa’s volatile Sahel region.
Chad’s armed forces disarmed 320 Sudanese soldiers who had entered its territory on Monday, its defence minister said, adding that Chad did not want to be involved in the conflict.
“Today, thousands of refugees are crossing our border to seek protection. We have no choice but to welcome and protect them,” Defence Minister Daoud Yaya Brahim said.
A Reuters reporter said there was a heavy exchange of gunfire in the Jabra neighbourhood of west Khartoum, where homes belonging to Hemedti and his family are located. Hemedti’s location has not been revealed since fighting began on Saturday.
The RSF said the army had used heavy artillery against homes in Jabra, breaching international law. An RSF call centre had been set up to help people in parts of the capital that it controls, it said.
The army controls access to Khartoum, a metropolis of around 5.5 million people, and appeared to be trying to cut off supply routes to RSF fighters. Army reinforcements were brought in from near the eastern border with Ethiopia, according to witnesses and residents.
Foreign powers have pushed for a ceasefire to allow for evacuations and the delivery of supplies, but a truce meant to start on Tuesday evening did not hold.
With planes smouldering on the runway of Khartoum’s international airport, evacuations looked difficult for now.
“There’s no way to get out,” Belgian diver Henri Hemmerechts told Reuters from Khartoum. “It’s just horrible and honestly, there’s nothing we can do at this point.”
The U.S. State Department said there were no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation. Turkey has also said it could not currently evacuate.
Germany halted a mission on Wednesday to fly out about 150 citizens on three Luftwaffe A400M transport planes, Der Spiegel magazine reported, citing unnamed sources.
Asked about the report, the German foreign ministry said all options were being assessed.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary said authorities were planning to use a plane from its military Self-Defense Forces to evacuate around 60 Japanese citizens.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will discuss the situation on Thursday with the heads of the African Union, Arab League and other relevant organisations, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
“People in Sudan are running out of food, fuel, and other vital supplies. Many urgently need medical care,” Dujarric said.
Gunmen have targeted hospitals and humanitarian workers, with reports of sexual violence against aid workers, the United Nations said. Most hospitals are out of service and health charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said armed men raided a warehouse of supplies it operates in the west of the country.
Even before the conflict, around a quarter of Sudan’s population was facing acute hunger. The World Food Programme halted one of its largest global aid operations in the country on Saturday after three of its workers were killed.