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US convoy attacked as rival forces clash in Sudan

Following an attack on the EU ambassador in Khartoum and a US diplomatic convoy, the United States called on the parties to the current conflict to secure the safety of diplomatic personnel.
People run past a military vehicle amid clashes in the city, Khartoum, Sudan, April 15, 2023.

Fear for the safety of diplomatic personnel in Sudan’s capital Khartoum grew after a US diplomatic convoy came under fire on Monday and the European Union’s ambassador was assaulted.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after the G-7 talks in Tokyo on Tuesday that no one in the convoy was hurt. “This action was reckless, it was irresponsible and of course unsafe,” he said. The US cortege was reportedly targeted by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force that has been locked in fierce battles with troops loyal to Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s transitional governing Sovereign Council.

At least 200 people have been killed and around 1,800 wounded in three days of urban clashes that have set off alarm bells across the region.

Blinken called Burhan and RSF leader Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, to warn them that any threat posed to American diplomatic staff was unacceptable. He called on both men for an immediate cease-fire.

"I underscored in both calls the responsibilities that Sudanese fighting forces bear for ensuring the safety and security of US and other diplomats who are resident in Sudan, as well as for UN staff and other humanitarian partners. If implemented successfully, a cease-fire for 24 hours can create a foundation to build upon for a more sustained halt to the fighting and a return to negotiations on a durable end to the hostilities," he noted.

"The people of Sudan have made clear their democratic aspirations. After months of talks, they were close to restoring a civilian-led government. We remain committed to helping them achieve that goal. At the same time, we will take all appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our people," Blinken continued.

US Embassy staff are sheltering in place in Sudan, John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said. “All US personnel are accounted for,” he added.

Meanwhile, EU Ambassador in Sudan Aidan O'Hara was attacked in his home in Khartoum on Monday afternoon. Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin said the ambassador was not seriously hurt. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell denounced the attack on Twitter. “Security of diplomatic premises and staff is a primary responsibility of Sudanese authorities and an obligation under international law,” he wrote.

An EU spokeswoman said that the EU delegation had not been evacuated following the incident but that security measures were being assessed. The EU did not specify who carried out the attack on O'Hara.

Heavy fighting is continuing despite numerous appeals for a cease-fire and direct efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and neighboring Egypt to that end.

Hemedti said he had agreed to a 24 hour truce that would come into force at 6 p.m. local time today to allow safe passage of civilians and evacuation of wounded but that Burhan had not honored it and continued to bomb densely populated areas from the air. 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi denied claims late on Monday that Egyptian troops in Sudan were there to intervene on the transitional government’s behalf. The rebuttal followed a video posted by the RSF that purportedly showed Egyptian troops who had “surrendered” to them in the northern town of Merowe. Sisi asserted the troops were merely there to conduct exercises with their Sudanese counterparts and that Egypt was in regular contact with the warring sides to cease hostilities.

UN envoy to Sudan Volker Perthes said clashes have spread across the country to eastern Sudan and the western province of Darfur. “The two sides who are fighting are not giving the impression they want mediation for a peace for them right away,” he told reporters on Monday.

Coming just a week before Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim religious holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan, the fighting has left residents in the capital cowering in their homes with many plunged into darkness due to power outages. Khartoum’s hospitals are overflowing with wounded. Eyewitnesses told the British daily The Independent that corpses "littered" the streets of Khartoum. The Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate said at least 97 civilians had died and that at least 12 hospitals had been shuttered as a result of the clashes. The situation is “extremely dire,” Abdulla Atiya of the Doctors’ Syndicate told The Associated Press.

On Sunday, the UN World Food Program halted many of its projects in Sudan after three of its staffers were killed in Darfur and one of its planes was damaged in the capital.

Sudan, which shares borders with seven countries, has been wracked by civil conflict and instability since gaining independence from the British in 1956. Hopes for a democratic transition grew in 2019 when the country’s brutal dictator — Omar al-Bashir — was overthrown following months of mass protests. However, Burhan and Hemedti teamed up in October 2021 to topple the Western-backed transitional government that was meant to steer the country toward democratic rule. The United States suspended $700 million in development aid to the impoverished nation of 45 million.

A framework agreement that was reached in December to resuscitate the transition has been bogged down by personal rivalry between Burhan and Hemedti, who is widely alleged to enjoy the backing of the UAE and Russia. The dispute played out over how to integrate the RSF into the Sudanese army. Burhan wanted the RSF absorbed in two years. Hemedti asked for 10.

Hemedti took to Twitter on Monday to lobby the international community for support, calling Burhan “a radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air.” On Tuesday, the transitional government called the RSF a rebel army and ordered its dissolution.

Some analysts are already drawing parallels with Libya, where eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter — who is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt — has been locked in a bloody power struggle with successive Tripoli-based transitional governments propped up by Turkey and Qatar and recognized by the international community.Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst who served under numerous US special envoys to Sudan, said it was premature to make such comparisons. “It’s still just beginning to unfold. It’s true that both sides have foreign backers, but we don’t know what it looks like right now and whether they have activated those sympathies to draw in new weapons and money,” he said.

Should the conflict drag on, however, there is “a real risk that those with stakes in the outcome will get more and more involved in meaningful ways,” Hudson added.

Worse, if the RSF consolidates its hold over Darfur and Burhan over Khartoum and further north, Sudan, which already saw its southern region secede, could end up even further fragmented. “They are burning down the country in the name of saving it. It is farcical,” Hudson concluded.

Editors' note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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