Smoke rises from burning aircraft inside Khartoum Airport during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum, Sudan April 17, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

Smoke rises from burning aircraft inside Khartoum Airport during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum, Sudan April 17, 2023.  – Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

KHARTOUM, April 20 (Reuters) – Residents of Sudan’s capital reported renewed heavy gunfire on Thursday as thousands tried to flee fighting that has killed scores of civilians, before the Eid holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Khartoum and its sister cities Omdurman and Bahri, one of Africa’s most populous urban areas, have been rocked by battles this week between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Locals and thousands of foreigners are stranded, and food supplies have run short.

The thick smoke and explosions of previous days abated early on Thursday, TV feeds over Khartoum showed, before the fighting erupted once again.

Gunfire was heard in Bahri, and residents reported clashes west of Omdurman where they said the army had moved to block the arrival of RSF reinforcements, as both sides violated a 24-hour ceasefire they had said they would respect from Wednesday.

The RSF issued a statement saying it came under attack in Omdurman and inflicted losses on the army in response, including shooting down two helicopters. Reuters could not independently verify the RSF’s claims.

The army has artillery and fighter planes, and controls access to Khartoum. It appeared to be trying to cut supply routes to RSF fighters, residents and witnesses said.

Thousands of people have been leaving the capital with most able to pass but some stopped at checkpoints, according to residents and social media posts.

“There’s no food, supermarkets are empty, the situation isn’t safe, honestly, so people are leaving,” said Khartoum resident who gave only his first name, Abdelmalek.

Hospitals reported bodies lying unburied and bullets crashing through windows. Residents said prices for the remaining fresh food have risen sharply.

Sudan sits strategically between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Africa’s volatile Sahel region, and the power struggle there risks fanning regional tensions.

The RSF has returned Egyptian troops it had captured at the northern Merowe base at the weekend, and western neighbour Chad said it had stopped and disarmed a Sudanese contingent of 320 soldiers on Monday, among thousands of refugees crossing the border from Sudan’s Darfur region.

‘Power grab’

Since hostilities erupted on Saturday, some of the most intense fighting has been around the compound housing the army HQ and the residence of Sudan’s military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Burhan accused RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, until last week his deputy on the military council that has ruled since a coup two years ago, of “a power grab”. A fragile alliance between the two men had mostly held since the ouster four years ago of veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Burhan said much of the RSF was now “out of control”, accusing its fighters of looting and attacking foreign diplomats and aid workers.

Washington has said RSF in had preliminary indications the RSF was behind an attack on its diplomats, and witnesses say RSF gunmen have been involved in looting and attacks on aid workers.

Separately, Dagalo – widely known by his nickname Hemedti – told the FT the armed forces were to blame for hitting hospitals and non-military targets, as well as the attacks on “diplomats and guests.”

Hemedti may command more than 100,000 fighters, analysts say, in a force that emerged from the feared janjaweed militias charged with International Criminal Court of war crimes in a brutal conflict in Darfur that escalated in 2003 and displaced more than 2 million people.

The ICC has not charged Hemedti, whose forces human rights groups say participated in a massacre of dozens of protesters in 2019. He has denied ordering the attack.

International powers, struggling to evacuate citizens after the airport and embassy districts were caught up in the violence, have been pushing for truces, to little effect.

The United States said personnel were sheltering, adding it was “not currently safe” to evacuate private citizens.

Japan’s defence ministry minister on Thursday placed military transport aircraft in Djibouti to prepare to evacuate 63 citizens. Tokyo is also considering land transport, Japanese media said.

Jakarta said more than 1,200 Indonesians live in Sudan, mostly students, and that fighting, including around their university, was hampering efforts to bring them home.

Fighting in Darfur

The violence was triggered by disagreement over an internationally-backed plan to form a new civilian government and integrate the RSF into the regular military. Both sides accuse the other of thwarting the transition.

The two military factions are also fighting in other parts of Sudan, including Darfur.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will discuss the situation on Thursday with the heads of the African Union, Arab League and other organisations.

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 operations in the country on Saturday after three workers were killed. –

Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Nafisa Eltahir in Cairo, Clauda Tanos in Dubai, writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel

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