Sudan battles rage as more civilians risk dangerous escape
Khartoum (AFP) -
Fighting raged in the Sudanese capital and a city to the south Wednesday, residents said, pushing more people to undertake dangerous journeys to safety across the country's borders.
Those unable to escape grapple with shortages of food and other essentials, surviving only thanks to Sudanese charity networks among friends and neighbours, as the United States expressed cautious optimism over talks to secure the safe delivery of aid.
'We were woken by explosions and heavy artillery fire,' one resident of Khartoum's sister city Omdurman told AFP as smoke drifted over the capital.
Other witnesses reported new air raids over the capital and counter-fire from anti-aircraft guns, in the fourth week of battles between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who commands the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
More than 750 people have been killed in the fighting which has wounded more than 5,000, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
In El Obeid, the North Kordofan state capital about 350 kilometres (190 miles) southwest of Khartoum, residents on Wednesday also reported fighting and explosions.
More than 700,000 people are now internally displaced by battles that began on April 15, and another 150,000 have fled the country, UN agencies said this week.
An average of 1,000 are registered every day by the International Organization for Migration at the dusty, sun-scorched Ethiopian border town of Metema.
- Checkpoints -
Every person interviewed by AFP in Metema spoke of the terror leading up to their departure -- days spent holed up at home in a city gripped by gunfire and bombings, followed by a 550-kilometre journey haunted by fear of armed robbery en route.
Ethiopian waiter Mohamed Ali, who moved to Khartoum seven years ago, said he left everything behind to flee.
'At each checkpoint, (armed men) searched us... and took whatever they found, including our money and any belongings we had,' he told AFP.
Envoys from the warring generals have been meeting since Saturday in the Saudi Arabian coastal city of Jeddah for 'pre-negotiation talks' with the participation of the United States.
They are very narrowly focused 'first on securing agreement on a declaration of humanitarian principles and then getting a ceasefire that is long enough to facilitate the steady delivery of badly needed services,' said Victoria Nuland, the State Department's number three official.
'I talked to our negotiators this morning who are cautiously optimistic,' she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
During the fighting, multiple ceasefires have been declared and flouted, including a week-long truce which South Sudan last week said had been 'in principle' agreed until May 11.
Fighting has continued every day since, and on Monday a Saudi diplomat told AFP the Jeddah talks had yielded 'no major progress'.
'A permanent ceasefire isn't on the table... Every side believes it is capable of winning the battle,' the diplomat said.
Kholood Khair, founder of the Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory, said earlier that the delegations were in Jeddah 'mostly to curry favour with the Saudis and the Americans', rather than to credibly pursue an agreement.
Asked about potential sanctions, Nuland said the US administration would 'look at appropriate targets in various categories, particularly if we cannot get these generals to allow the humanitarian aid and put their guns down.'
In the Washington hearing, several senators criticised Biden's administration for not imposing sanctions ahead of the crisis and for focusing on the generals instead of pro-democracy forces.
Several aid workers have been killed in the fighting and humanitarian facilities ransacked.
Cindy McCain, World Food Programme executive director, said nearly 25 percent of the agency's food has been looted.
- Millions in need -
Outside of Khartoum, the long-troubled Darfur region bordering Chad has seen some of the worst unrest.
'More than 250,000 people have been displaced in Darfur, where armed groups kill and attack civilians, loot premises and trucks of aid workers,' the Islamic Relief aid group reported.
In Zalingei, Central Darfur's capital, the local market had been pillaged, Islamic Relief said.
Two decades ago a rebellion began in Darfur against perceived domination of Sudan's power and wealth by the country's Arab elites. In response, the government of Omar al-Bashir unleashed the Janjaweed militia, leading to war crimes charges against Bashir and others.
The RSF are descended from the Janjaweed.
Despite the dangers and challenges, the UN continues 'to ramp up our efforts to respond to the crisis,' Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told reporters on Wednesday.
Even before this war triggered what the UN calls a 'catastrophic' humanitarian situation, one-third of Sudan's population needed aid.
On Wednesday an Emirati military plane arrived in Port Sudan with humanitarian supplies, after two Saudi Arabian aircraft loaded with aid landed there on Tuesday, AFP journalists said.