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Sudan army targeting mysterious RSF stronghold in North Darfur

Zurug, a crucial Rapid Support Forces base, has been bombed three times in the last two months as the Sudanese Armed Forces make gains across the country
Zurug is a crucial RSF base in Sudan's North Darfur state (Social media)

The Sudanese army is targeting the North Darfur stronghold of its enemy, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), killing dozens of people in air strikes and displacing thousands as it looks to add to recent gains made across the country.

Zurug, which serves as the RSF’s main supply point for the rest of Sudan, has been bombed by the army three times in the last two months.

While the bombing has caused widespread damage to the area’s infrastructure and has resulted in dozens of casualties, sources in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) believe that recent attacks have accurately targeted the Zurug’s military base.

It is here that the RSF receives supplies and weapons from neighbouring Chad and Libya. Those supplies, which often originate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the RSF’s main external backer, are then sent out across Sudan.

Amdjarass, the Chadian town now serving as a field hospital and supply station for the paramilitary, is about 250km away. Both the UAE and the RSF have previously denied sending or receiving this weaponry. 

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The intensive assault on Zurug, which is surrounded by fertile agricultural land and is rich in natural resources, comes as the army mounts widespread offensive operations in other parts of Sudan, including the capital Khartoum. 

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A Sudanese civilian who was recently displaced from Zurug to Kutum, a city in North Darfur, told Middle East Eye that the army had targeted it three times with air strikes.

“In the first and second attacks, in January, SAF planes bombed the RSF military base in the western part of the Wadi Howar (Howar river valley) and the house of Zurug’s mayor, Gomma Dagalo, who is the uncle of RSF leader Hemeti,” the source said, referring to paramilitary chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. 

This attack killed six of the mayor’s assistants, he said, and was followed in February by strikes targeting the western parts of Zurug, “near the main market”.

These, said Ahmed Adam, another displaced civilian, were very intensive and forced the RSF and its allied militias to head north and east out of the area. 

Videos obtained by MEE from Zurug after the second attack in January showed burnt and bombed-out cars and houses, and a large area of destruction. 

The RSF has acknowledged the army’s 6 February attack, saying that dozens of people were killed and injured in it.

Nazar Sid Ahmed, a member of the RSF’s negotiation team, told MEE that the army had killed 18 civilians and destroyed dozens of houses. He said that women and children were among the dead.

Historical conflict

Since the 1960s, this area of North Darfur has been marked by conflict between the indigenous African Zaghawa people and Arab groups, particularly the Rizeigat tribe, over the ownership of the land.

A former leading member of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, which was partly made up of Zaghawa people, told MEE that he had fought Arab settlers in 1997, and that while there had been some peace after that, the then-government of autocrat Omar al-Bashir “continued its interference and enabled the Arabs to dig wells in the area”.

'Hemeti conducted new city planning for the area, establishing a new city with different service institutions'

- engineer in North Darfur

This was supervised, the former rebel leader said, by Musa Hilal, who went on to become one of the leaders of the Janjaweed, the Arab militias charged by Bashir with brutally crushing rebellion in Darfur.

The systematic killing carried out by the Janjaweed resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Darfuri people, and the militias later morphed into the RSF. 

Nevertheless, the source said that “Zaghawa dominance continued in the area until 2017 because rebel fighters protected the areas, with a few Arabs settling in a peaceful manner”. 

In 2017, this changed, a Zaghawa tribal leader told MEE, saying that Bashir’s government enabled the RSF to seize the area and bring Arab settlers in to change its demography, as well as benefitting from its strategic location and rich resources.

“As a gift for its participation in the anti-insurgency war waged by Bashir and success in defeating North Darfur’s rebel movements, the RSF were empowered to take control of the area,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said.

Mustafa Mohammed, another Zurug citizen, said that because of its strategic location, the RSF “established its main military base in Zurug and started working to convert it into a big commercial centre and rich market”.

Ahmed Adam said that a customs centre had opened in Zurug and that “goods and commercial convoys from Libya and Chad” must pass through the town.

“Zurug is also a big market for livestock, has very fertile farmlands and water from Wadi Howar, as well as huge amounts of groundwater,” he said. 

Before the war began, the RSF and Sudanese transitional government sought to attract investment to the area by arranging media visits, Adam said.

Dagalo development

Hemeti, the RSF’s leader, was at the heart of Zurug’s development, according to an engineer from North Darfur who worked on the construction of the new city.

“Hemeti conducted new city planning for the area, establishing a new city with different service institutions, including a hospital and schools, as well as some government institutions,” the engineer told MEE. “He appointed his uncle Gomma Dagalo as mayor of the area.”

In 2019, the engineer worked on plans to construct an airstrip for helicopters to land in the area, something he said suggested the RSF was “using the area for more than civil purposes”.

“Gomma Dagalo conducted wide demographic changes in the area and brought Arab settlers from Chad to Zurug after 2017,” another Zaghawa member and longtime resident of the area told MEE.

'Zurug, as a centre and military base, was established in 2017, just two years after RSF fighters began fighting in the Yemeni war'

Mohamed Badawi, Sudanese scholar

“The rate of this planned migration increased after the removal of Bashir in 2019, as the Dagalo family’s power and influence increased,” he said.

Nazar Sid Ahmed, the RSF negotiator, denied these claims. He said there was no tribal conflict in the area and that Arabs and Zaghawa people were living peacefully together. 

Ahmed also denied the presence of an RSF military base in the area. However Sudanese scholar Mohamed Badawi refuted this.

“Zurug, as a centre and military base, was established in 2017, just two years after RSF fighters began fighting in the Yemeni war, which the RSF profited from and which gave them independence from other government institutions,” he told MEE. 

Badawi, who is also a researcher at the Africa Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), said that the RSF “felt threatened when Bashir issued a presidential decree to put the RSF under the command of the SAF”, as well as by the disarmament campaign of rebel forces in Darfur and efforts to stop the “smuggling of cars across the borders, especially into Libya”.

Establishing a base in Zurug was, then, a way of gaining independence and guarding against any attempt by the government to dissolve the RSF or fold it into the army. 

“Zurug is a historically strategic area and the only military base in the greater desert, near the borders of important neighbouring countries,” Badawi said. 

After Bashir was ousted and as the RSF's financial resources multiplied, thanks in part to their gold exports and the presence of their mercenaries across the region, Zurug became better established.

Now, this key area for the RSF is under threat from the army, which just two months ago looked as though it was going to be defeated by Hemeti's men.

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