Sudan fighting: The military rivalry behind the clashes in Khartoum

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Media caption,

Watch: Sheltering from fighter jets and gunfire around Khartoum airport

The fighting that has erupted in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere in the country is a direct result of a vicious power struggle within the country’s military leadership.

There are clashes at strategic places across the capital as members of a paramilitary force – Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – and regular soldiers fight.

Here is what you need to know.

What has led to the fighting?

Since a coup in October 2021, Sudan has been run by a council of generals, led by the two military men at the centre of the dispute:

  • Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the armed forces and in effect the country’s president
  • And his deputy and leader of the RSF, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.

They have disagreed on the direction the country is going in and the proposed move towards civilian rule.

One of the main sticking points is over the plans to include the 100,000-strong RSF into the army and who would then lead the new force.

Where is Sudan?

The north-east African nation borders seven countries as well as the Red Sea.

It has powerful neighbours to the north – Egypt – and east – Ethiopia – and also controls a section of the Red Sea, which is essential to international trade.

It was once the continent’s largest country by area, until South Sudan gained independence in 2011 following decades of civil war.

Why did the fighting kick off on Saturday?

The violence follows days of tension as members of the RSF were redeployed around the country last week in a move that the army saw as a threat.

There had been some hope that talks could resolve the situation but these never happened.

It is disputed who fired the first shot on Saturday morning but fighting has since escalated in different parts of the country with almost 100 civilians dying, according to a Sudan’s doctors’ union.

Why have civilians got caught up?

Even though the conflict appears to be around the control of key installations, much of it is happening in urban areas and civilians have become the unwitting victims.

It is not exactly clear where the RSF bases are, but it seems that their fighters have moved into densely populated areas.

The Sudanese air force has mounted air strikes in the capital, a city of more than six million people, which is likely to have led to civilian casualties.

There was a brief pause in the fighting, agreed by both sides, on Saturday to allow people to escape the fighting.

Who are the Rapid Support Forces?

The RSF was formed in 2013 and has its origins in the notorious Janjaweed militia that brutally fought rebels in Darfur, where they were accused of ethnic cleansing.

Since then, Gen Dagalo has built a powerful force that has intervened in conflicts in Yemen and Libya. He has also developed economic interests including controlling some of Sudan’s gold mines.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,

Rivalry between Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (pictured) and Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is at the heart of the problem

The RSF has been accused of human rights abuses, including the massacre of more than 120 protesters in June 2019.

Such a strong force outside the army has been seen as a source of instability in the country.

Why is the military in charge?

This fighting is the latest episode in bouts of tension that followed the ousting of long-serving President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

There were huge street protests calling for an end to his near-three decade rule and the army mounted a coup to get rid of him.

But civilians continued to campaign for a return to democratic rule.

A joint military-civilian government was then established but that was overthrown in another coup in October 2021.

And since then the rivalry between Gen Burhan and Gen Dagalo has intensified.

A framework deal to put power back in the hands of civilians was agreed last December but talks to finalise the details have failed.

What do the two men want?

Gen Dagalo has said that the 2021 coup was a mistake and has tried to present himself and the RSF as being on the side of the people, against the Khartoum elites.

While he has some support, others find this message hard to believe given the paramilitary force’s brutal track record.

Meanwhile, Gen Burhan has said the army will only fully hand over power to an elected government, further sidelining civilian representatives expected to be part of a power-sharing deal.

Suspicions between the generals persist and their supporters are worried what might happen to their wealth and influence if they are removed from their powerful positions.

What can other countries do?

There are fears that the fighting could further fragment the country, worsen political turbulence and draw in neighbouring states.

Diplomats, who have played a crucial role in trying to urge a return to civilian rule, are desperately trying to find a way to get the two generals to talk.

A regional bloc agreed to send three presidents – from Kenya, South Sudan and Djibouti – to Khartoum, but it is unclear if they can make the trip as no planes are flying in or out of the country.

More about the unrest in Sudan:

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