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Sudan: Anxious wait as RSF mobilisation triggers conflict fears

Mediators scramble to defuse tensions as eyes turn to a strategic airport crucial in any potential military confrontation  
A Sudanese flag placed above the muzzle of a machine gun covered with an ammunition belt of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries before a rally for supporters in northwest of Khartoum on 22 June 2019 (AFP)
A Sudanese flag above the muzzle of a machine gun of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries before a rally for supporters northwest of Khartoum on 22 June 2019 (AFP)
By Mohammed Amin in Khartoum

Sudanese residents are anxiously hoping for calm as paramilitary forces amass near a strategic airport and the threat of conflict with the military grows.

Sudan's military issued a rare rebuke of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on Thursday, accusing the powerful paramilitary force of deploying troops without approval from the armed forces, and risking potential armed confrontations. 

At least 100 RSF vehicles on Wednesday evening entered the city of Merowe, located 330 km north of the capital, and surrounded its airport, according to resident Al-Tayeb Ahmed.

“This is not the first attempt by the RSF to mobilise troops in the city. We noticed a similar thing last week but on a smaller scale and troops were eventually removed by the air force commander,” Ahmed told Middle East Eye. 

However, this time the RSF arrived in much larger numbers and refused to leave. 

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“We as citizens of the area tried to talk to them to calm the situation, but they said that they are following orders from their leadership,” Ahmed added. 

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“It’s very tense and people are staying indoors, waiting to see if things will calm or explode. We are just waiting and hoping it will end peacefully.” 

In Khartoum, a MEE correspondent and eyewitnesses said there was widespread mobilisation by the RSF, both inside the city and on the outskirts. 

“Dozens of RSF vehicles have been seen moving from Suba in the southern outskirts of Khartoum towards the north of Khartoum, passing through the Africa Street and El Mek Nimr Bridge,” Isam Aldin Ali, an eyewitness, told MEE. 

Another eyewitness north of Khartoum also said they saw an RSF convoy moving outside the RSF base in Bahri, the twin city of Khartoum.

A power struggle between de facto head of state General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, chief of the RSF, has heightened in recent months, creating tensions between the military and the RSF that have threatened the overall security situation in the country.

The tensions have twice forced a delay of the signing of an internationally backed agreement, originally scheduled for 1 April, to name a Sudanese civilian government and launch a new transition towards elections. 

Strategic airport  

The mobilisation in Merowe, and particularly around its airport and an air force base, is no coincidence.

A retired general and military expert, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said control of the base by either side can determine victory in any potential military confrontation. 

“The Merowe air force base can give superiority to the military against the RSF and this is why the RSF wants to block the base from all directions to neutralise the planes inside,” he said. 

'The Merowe air force base can give superiority to the military against the RSF and this is why the RSF wants to... neutralise the planes inside'

- Retired general 

The RSF has strong ground forces, he explained, and recently acquired tanks belonging to the military. 

This means they can engage in long ground battles if the aerial threat is nullified. 

The base also houses Egyptian fighter jets which were used in joint Sudanese-Egyptian drills in 2020. 

Burhan, who is also the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, is Egypt's preferred candidate in the power struggle between him and Daglo, who is better known as Hemeti. 

The RSF leader, who was once head of the notorious Janjaweed militias in Darfur, where he controls gold mines, has influential supporters in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

MEE contacted the military and RSF but didn't receive a response by the time of publication. 

Mediation efforts 

As tensions simmered, local and international mediators scrambled to engage both sides in talks to defuse the situation. 

A western diplomat told MEE they are in contact with the leadership of both sides and have so far received positive responses. 

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“We received initial promises from both sides that they won’t go further with this escalation and we are in talks with the RSF to withdraw its forces from Merowe,” said the diplomat, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak with the media. 

Sudanese political parties and former rebels have also joined the mediation efforts. 

Malik Agar, Gibril Ibrahim, and Minni Arko Minnawi - rebel leaders and members of the sovereign council - said in a joint statement they are engaging in talks with both sides. 

“We would like to inform our people that we are mediating between our brothers in the military and RSF to contain the situation and avoid serious consequences that threaten our country,” the politicians said. 

The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition, which has been representing civilians in internationally mediated talks with Sudan’s military, also called on the two sides to refrain from escalating the situation and urged them to return to negotiations. 

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