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As Sudan's conflict continues into its second week, here's what to know

Smoke is seen in Khartoum,  April 22. The fighting in the capital between the Sudanese Army and Rapid Support Forces resumed after an internationally brokered cease-fire failed.
Marwan Ali
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AP
Smoke is seen in Khartoum, April 22. The fighting in the capital between the Sudanese Army and Rapid Support Forces resumed after an internationally brokered cease-fire failed.

Fighting in Sudan has continued for nearly two weeks since it began on April 15, when violence broke out between the country's army and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces.

The two are engaged in a power struggle over who gets to run the resource-rich nation that sits at the crossroads between North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

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Previously the warring factions were allies who united after a massive people-power revolution in 2019 to overthrow longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. They promised a transition to democracy — but instead toppled the country's transitional civilian government in a second coup in 2021.

Since then, they have been at odds over plans for a new transition and the integration of the RSF into the regular army. Their fight this month has led to more than 400 deaths and turned the capital's once-quiet residential streets into a disaster zone.

"This is a power projection between Sudan's two most powerful armed forces," says Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa researcher at British think tank Chatham House.

Here are some key things to know about the conflict and its likely impact on the region — and beyond.

Who are the generals fighting each other?

Leading the opposing forces are the Sudanese Army's Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan and the RSF's Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by his nickname, Hemedti.

Both served under Bashir and played key roles in the counterinsurgency that began in Sudan's Darfur region in 2003.

Burhan received military training in both Jordan and Egypt. He became the de facto ruler of Sudan as head of the Sovereign Council, a civilian-military partnership created after the popular uprising that deposed Bashir in 2019.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, leader of Sudan's army, is engaged in a violent power struggle with Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces.
Sudan Armed Forces / AP
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AP
Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, leader of Sudan's army, is engaged in a violent power struggle with Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces.

Dagalo rose through the ranks of the notorious Sudanese Arab Janjaweed militia, which is accused of committing atrocities during the 16-year war in Darfur.

He went on to lead Bashir's private militia, but after the mass uprising in 2019, joined Burhan in deposing his former boss.

In this photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, on Feb. 9, 2023.
Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service / AP
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AP
In this photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, on Feb. 9, 2023.

"The clashes that we're seeing ... are in part the result of these two autocratic leaders' actions, who not only are in charge of vast armies and control much of the state's economy, but which have also been emboldened over the last three years by being key stakeholders in the political process," says Soliman.

They have, he says, "framed themselves as reformers, protectors of Sudan and guardians of its democratic transition and its revolution — falsely so."

What's the humanitarian situation?

The fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis, as people have been forced to remain largely in their homes, only occasionally able to use a pause in the battles to stock up — if they can — on essential supplies like water, food and medicine. While Khartoum has borne the brunt of the fighting, there has also been unrest in other areas, and there are concerns it could awaken conflict in Darfur.

Numerous countries, including the U.S., have closed their embassies and evacuated their personnel. The United Nations has also moved most of its foreign staff out of the country, but the chief of mission has remained in place to push for an end to the fighting.

Bombings and gun battles have been taking place in the heart of the capital Khartoum, in residential neighborhoods, with buildings badly damaged.

Alyona Synenko, Africa spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, says morgues have been filling up. "There have been dead bodies that were in the streets for days and also the morgues are full with the dead," she says. "We are looking at thousands of people who were wounded and the healthcare system in Sudan is on the verge of collapse, or I think we could safely say, collapsing."

There has been a mass prison break from one of the country's main jails, which housed former members of the Bashir regime responsible for rights abuses. And the World Health Organization says one of the warring parties has seized a laboratory which contains measles, polio and cholera isolates, creating a "high risk of biological hazard."

Some 70% of hospitals are not functioning, Dr. Attiya Abdullah, secretary of the Sudan Doctors Trade Union, tells NPR. Health staff have been killed and hospitals are out of electricity or water, with no fuel for generators, he says.

People prepare to board a bus departing Khartoum on April 24, as battles rage in the city between the army and paramilitaries.
- / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People prepare to board a bus departing Khartoum on April 24, as battles rage in the city between the army and paramilitaries.

Soaring food and fuel prices are exacerbating problems for ordinary Sudanese.

Tens of thousands are trying to flee to safety, mainly to neighboring Chad and South Sudan, says Faith Kasina, regional spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency.

"At least 20,000 Sudanese have arrived in Chad and nearly 4,000 South Sudanese refugees have returned to South Sudan. ... These new arrivals are placing additional strain on these countries that already have public services and resources significantly overstretched," she says.

"The teams that we have at the border locations, in mainly South Sudan and Chad, tell us they're witnessing a very dire situation. That people are essentially coming in exhausted, coming in scared. The majority of those that are arriving are women and children... We're seeing cases where people are staying out in the open, under the trees."

What's at stake in the region and beyond?

International diplomats are struggling to bring Sudan back from the brink. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he has spoken to both generals directly. The African Union is also involved in negotiations. But the U.N. head of mission, Volker Perthes, said this week neither side seemed serious about negotiating.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned on Tuesday the violence could spread to other countries in the region, saying: "It is lighting a fuse that could detonate across borders, causing immense suffering for years, and setting development back for decades."

Sudan is surrounded by a host of fragile states, either in conflict or emerging from it. Before the fall of Bashir, the U.S. long considered Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism.

"Having a stable Sudan that looks to the United States as a partner, as a core partner, that's incredibly strategic," says Susan Stigant, who runs the Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

And it's not only Washington that wants to see an end to the fighting. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have financial interests in Sudan. Egypt shares a long border and a significant source of water — the Nile.

China and Sudan have long had a relationship stemming from the North African state's export of oil. Beijing is Sudan's second-biggest trading partner and has considerable investments in the country.

The Russian mercenary group Wagner, which has links to the Kremlin, also has a presence in Sudan, mainly involving guarding Russian-run mines as well as gold smuggling. The group denies any involvement in the conflict.

Russia also has other interests in the country, with Moscow planning to build a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

How might the current conflict play out?

Many analysts believe that Sudan is headed for a prolonged period of conflict, given that neither general is likely to relinquish power easily.

The many Sudanese who participated in the pro-democracy movement are devastated to see their hopes of a transition back to civilian rule imperiled, but members of the country's so-called resistance committees, which organized the 2019 and post-coup protests, say they're not giving up.

Despite multiple calls for an end to hostilities, several cease-fires have failed. The latest, announced earlier this week, has seen a lull in fighting but not a complete halt.

A number of countries have offered to mediate and get the two generals to the negotiating table. But given how far the leaders have gone in denouncing each other, it's believed they are unlikely to give up their struggle for power now.

Some analysts say this conflict has been long in the making.

Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. official who has worked on Sudan, thinks the U.S. miscalculated by putting too much trust in what the generals said about their commitment to restoring civilian control.

"To see it kind of fall apart now and the whole country kind of go up in flames, I think is, you know, is a real bad signal for the ability of the United States and its allies to help bring about these kinds of transitions, not only in Sudan but all across the region," says Hudson, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mohamed Osman, a researcher on Sudan at Human Right Watch, says the world should have seen this coming.

"Both forces come with a long legacy of abuse," he says. "The unfortunate part is that the former government, the transitional government, failed to address this legacy of abuse, failed to embark upon security sector reform, alike with the international actors who continued to prioritize politics of appeasement."

Kate Bartlett reported from Johannesburg, Michele Kelemen from Washington, D.C. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kate Bartlett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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