CAIRO – Sudan's top general on Friday declared the military's commitment to a civilian-led government, an apparent bid for international support even as his forces battle a rival paramilitary group in a bloody power struggle that has derailed hopes for the country's democratic transition.
In his first speech since the conflict engulfed Sudan nearly a week ago, army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan pledged the military would prevail and secure the vast African nation's “safe transition to civilian rule.” But for many Sudanese, Burhan's claim rang hollow 18 months after he joined forces with his current rival to seize power in a coup that cast aside Sudan's pro-democracy forces.
Burhan's announcement came on the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan and its month of fasting. Both sides later issued statements saying they had agreed on a three-day truce to allow people to celebrate, but residents could still hear gunfire in parts of the capital, Khartoum, an hour after the truce was to take effect. Two cease-fire attempts earlier this week rapidly collapsed.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has spoken to both generals, welcomed the latest truce while acknowledging that “fighting is continuing and there is serious mistrust between the two forces.”
“I reiterate my call on both sides to pause the fighting to allow civilians to take care of themselves and their families, to permit full and unimpeded humanitarian access, and to enable all civilians, including diplomatic personnel, to reach safety,” he said in a statement.
The United States, its allies and other countries have been searching in vain for ways to evacuate their citizens, which has thus far been too risky, with the two sides battling across Khartoum and elsewhere. Some of the heaviest fighting has been over airports.
The Pentagon has moved a small number troops to a base in the nearby Horn of Africa country of Djibouti to support an evacuation. The U.S. joint chiefs of staff chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, discussed the situation with defense officials from Germany, Italy and Canada at a gathering in Germany on Friday, a U.S. official said. One topic was ensuring that any potential evacuation efforts did not conflict. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the deliberations.
The Eid al-Fitr holiday — typically filled with prayer, celebration and feasting — was a somber one in Sudan, as gunshots rang out across the capital of Khartoum and heavy smoke billowed over the skyline.
Rather than out in the open, mosques held mass morning prayers inside to protect worshippers from the intensified fighting. The violence so far has killed 413 people and wounded 3,551, according to the latest toll from the World Health Organization. That includes at least nine children killed and 50 wounded in the fighting, said the U.N. children’s fund.
“There is no safe place anymore in Khartoum,” said Dallia Abdelmoniem, a 37-year-old baker who fled the Sudanese capital with her family on Thursday, after a rocket sliced through her roof. The road to the city's outskirts was littered with dead bodies. Abdelmoniem covered the eyes of her nieces and nephews.
“Our number one priority is just to stay alive,” she said from her new shelter outside the city, where she could still hear the howl of artillery and gunfire Friday.
“Instead of waking up to the call to prayer, people in Khartoum again woke up to heavy fighting,” Norway’s ambassador to Sudan, Endre Stiansen wrote in an Eid al-Fitr message on Twitter. “Can any hell be more horrible than this?”
The Sudanese military a day earlier ruled out negotiations with the RSF, saying it would only accept its surrender, and on Friday it claimed to be clearing RSF positions from around Khartoum. The military has appeared to have the upper hand in the fighting, with its monopoly on air power, but it was impossible to confirm its claims of advances.
The two generals vying for control over the vast African nation — Burhan and his rival, RSF chief Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo — have sought to portray themselves as supporters of democracy. In 2019, they turned against long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir and pushed him out of power amid a popular uprising against his rule.
But since then, they have failed to implement agreements under which they would hand over power. Their forces crushed pro-democracy protests, and in 2021 they jointly carried out a coup that removed a transitional government and entrenched them as Sudan's most powerful leaders. Both forces have a long history of human rights abuses. The RSF was born out of the Janjaweed militias, which were accused of atrocities in crushing a rebellion in Sudan’s western Darfur region in the early 2000s.
The current explosion of violence between them came after Burhan and Dagalo fell out over a recent internationally brokered deal with democracy activists that was meant to incorporate the RSF into the military and eventually lead to civilian rule.
The fighting continued to frustrate efforts by nations to evacuate their nationals from Sudan.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country was preparing for an evacuation “when we have a cease-fire that holds for at least some time.” Spain has air force planes ready, but it’s ”not possible to predict” when an evacuation can occur, its Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said.
“The situation is simply put terrible,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said. “An evacuation task is risky and complicated.”
The U.S. State Department on Thursday confirmed the death of a U.S. private citizen in Sudan, but gave no details. The U.N.’s International Office of Migration said one its staffers was killed when his family’s vehicle got caught in a crossfire in North Kordofan province, which has seen heavy clashes between the two sides.
The violence has already pushed Sudan’s population to the brink and opened a dark and tumultuous chapter in the country's history. Fears are mounting that the chaos in the strategically located nation could draw in its neighbors, including Chad, Egypt and Libya.
The bombardment and sniper fire has hit civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, over the past week. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus decried what he called the “reprehensible” attacks on health facilities on Friday, saying they “not only jeopardize the lives of healthcare workers but also deprive vulnerable populations of essential medical care."
WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters in Geneva that the violence has forced 20 health facilities nationwide to halt operations. A dozen other hospitals are at risk of shutting down, threatening some 50,000 severely malnourished children in Sudan who are administered regular feeding by tubes to survive, according to UNICEF.
The Sudanese Red Crescent said armed men looted its warehouses in Khartoum on Friday, stealing eight 4X4 vehicles and a truck. It expressed concern that the vehicles, which bear Red Crescent markings, could be used in “criminal or commercial” activities.
“It's really hard to remain calm,” said Abdelmoniem, describing shortages of fuel, medicine, cash and food causing desperation in much of Khartoum.
“People are telling me, ‘Happy Eid," she added. "But then I turn on the news.”