Sudan paramilitaries clash with army in apparent coup bid

April 15 (Reuters) – Sudan’s main paramilitary group said it had seized the presidential palace, the army chief’s residence and Khartoum international airport on Saturday in an apparent coup attempt but the military said it was fighting back.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which accused the army of attacking them first, also said they had taken over the airports in the northern city of Merowe and in El-Obeid in the west.

The situation on the ground was unclear. The army said it was fighting the RSF at sites the paramilitaries said they had taken. The army also said it had taken some RSF bases and denied that the RSF had taken Merowe airport.

A major confrontation between the RSF and the army could plunge Sudan into widespread conflict as it struggles with economic breakdown and tribal violence, and could also derail efforts to move towards elections.

The clashes follow rising tensions between the army and the RSF over the integration of the RSF into the military and who should oversee the process. The disagreement has delayed the signing an internationally-backed agreement with political parties on a transition to democracy.

On Saturday, the RSF accused the army of carrying out a plot by loyalists of former strongman President Omar Hassan al-Bashir – who was ousted in 2019 – and attempting a coup itself.

The RSF is headed by former militia leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. He has been deputy leader of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council headed by army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan since 2019.

The army said the Sudanese air force was conducting operations against the RSF. Footage from broadcasters showed a military aircraft in the sky above Khartoum, but Reuters could not independently confirm the material.

Gunfire could be heard in several parts of Khartoum and eyewitnesses reporting shooting in adjoining cities.

A Reuters journalist saw cannon and armoured vehicles deployed in the streets of the capital and heard heavy weapons fire near the headquarters of both the army and RSF.

TV footage showed smoke rising over several areas of Khartoum.

Doctors said at least three civilians had been killed.

Clashes were also taking place at the headquarters of Sudan’s state TV, said an anchor who appeared on screen.

The Sudanese armed forces spokesman told the Al Jazeera Mubasher television station that the army would respond to any “irresponsible” actions, as its forces clashed with the RSF in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country.

Brigadier-General Nabil Abdallah said there was a heavy presence of RSF troops at the TV headquarters in Khartoum.

Eyewitnesses reported gunfire in many other parts of the country outside the capital. Those included heavy exchanges of gunfire in Merowe, eyewitnesses told Reuters.

Eyewitnesses said clashes had also erupted between the RSF and army in the Darfur cities of El Fasher and Nyala.

International powers – the U.S., Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Nations and the European Union – all called for an end to the hostilities.

Civilian political parties that had signed an initial power-sharing deal with the army and the RSF also called on the two sides to end the violence.

The army said the RSF had tried to attack its troops in several positions.

The RSF, which analysts say is 100,000 strong, said its forces were attacked first by the army, saying in a statement earlier on Saturday that the army surrounded one of its bases and opened fire with heavy weapons.

Hemedti’s RSF evolved from so-called janjaweed militias that fought in a conflict in the 2000s in the Darfur region. An estimated 2.5 million people were displaced and 300,000 killed in the conflict. International Criminal Court prosecutors accused government officials and janjaweed commanders of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Hemedti had put himself at the forefront of a planned transition towards democracy, unsettling fellow military rulers and triggering a mobilisation of troops in the capital Khartoum.

The rift between the forces came to the surface on Thursday, when the army said that recent movements, particularly in Merowe, by the RSF were illegal.

The RSF, which together with the army overthrew Bashir four years ago, began redeploying units in Khartoum and elsewhere amid talks last month on its integration into the military under a transition plan that would lead to new elections.

Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Alex Richardson

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