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Airlines suspend Sudan flights after Saudi plane hit by gunfire

A number of Middle Eastern airlines have banned flights after the power struggle between the Sudanese army and a rival paramilitary group turned deadly on Saturday.
Khartoum on fire

Several Middle Eastern airlines extended their suspensions on flights to and from Sudan on Monday after a Saudi passenger plane was caught in the crossfire on Saturday, amid the deadly unrest in the African country. 

On Saturday, Saudi Arabian Airlines suspended all flights to and from the war-torn country until further notice after one of its A330s was hit by gunfire at Khartoum International Airport at 7:30 UTC. 

The A330 bound for Riyadh was hit by bullets with passengers and crew on board, according to the airline, which confirmed that the crew had safely arrived at the Saudi Embassy in Sudan.

The airline said it was working with the relevant authorities led by the kingdom’s embassy in Sudan to obtain more information about the incident. 

Air Emirates said in a statement Monday that it had cancelled flights between Dubai and the Sudanese capital Khartoum until at least April 25. The UAE airline had originally announced a suspension until April 17.

“We are closely monitoring the situation in Khartoum and updates with regards to Emirates operations will be published in due course,” the airline added.

Low-cost Emirati airline flydubai, which runs a daily service to Khartoum International Airport, also cancelled its flights between April 15 and April 25.

“Passengers connecting to Khartoum will not be accepted for their onward travel. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and revise our schedule accordingly,” an airline spokesperson told The National.

Sharjah-based Air Arabia also suspended flights until further notice and Qatar Airways, the biggest carrier in the region, also suspended flights to Sudan, the Qatar News Agency reported on Sunday.

Background: At least 97 civilians have died and 365 have been injured since the fighting started in Sudan early on Saturday, according to activist group the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors. 

A long-simmering dispute between the army and a rival paramilitary group erupted in April for control of the African country. Fighting was reported across Khartoum over the weekend as well as in Omdurman, northwest of the city, and the city of Bahri, north of the capital. 

There was also fighting reported in Port Sudan. Videos shared on social media show the Sudanese army bulldozing through the eastern city of Port Sudan, defeating the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group and assuming control of the city. The RSF had been due to merge with Sudan’s army and the leaders of the paramilitary group share power in a ruling military council.

Why it matters: In 2019, after Sudan's autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup, there was an internationally backed plan to launch a civilian transition council to ensure stability. However, that agreement was due to be signed earlier this month and it still has not been, culminating in a power struggle that threatens to plunge the country into civil war. 

Under Bashir, Sudan was isolated from the international stage. The dictator was wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer charges of genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region and elsewhere. Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan’s first prime minister after Bashir was toppled, attempted to get his country back into the international fold but resigned in January 2022 due to the ongoing unrest. The unrest has halted these efforts to help improve Sudan's economic and political reputation internationally.

The flight suspensions will have a major impact on the country’s economy and international attractiveness. As of 2019, the most recent data available, travel and tourism contributed to 4.6% of Sudan’s GDP.

Port Sudan also has key economic significance as the country’s main seaport, handling landlocked South Sudan’s oil exports in exchange for payment. The conflict spilling into the city threatens the country’s economy as it may impact the output of the port.

The United States, China, Russia, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, United Nations, European Union and African Union have all called for an end to the conflict. 

Know more: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a visit to Japan on Monday that an immediate cease-fire was required.

"There is a shared deep concern about the fighting, violence that's going on in Sudan — the threat that poses to civilians, that it poses to the Sudanese nation and potentially poses even to the region," he told reporters.

Washington’s ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, tweeted Sunday that he had taken shelter with his embassy colleagues. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the fighting and called for calm and further dialogue. 

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