Fighters rampage in Darfur city despite Sudan truce

By Samy Magdy

CAIRO (AP) – Armed fighters rampaged through a main city in Sudan’s war-ravaged region of Darfur on Thursday, battling each other and looting shops and homes, residents said. The violence came despite a fragile three-day truce between Sudan’s two top generals whose power struggle has killed hundreds.

The mayhem in the Darfur city of Genena pointed to how the rival generals’ fight for control in the capital, Khartoum, was spiraling into violence in other parts of Sudan.

The cease-fire has brought a significant easing of fighting in Khartoum and its neighboring city Omdurman for the first time since the military and a rival paramilitary force began clashing on April 15, turning residential neighborhoods into battlegrounds.

The relative calm has allowed foreign governments to airlift out hundreds of citizens, while tens of thousands of Sudanese have streamed out of Khartoum, seeking safer areas or escape abroad.

An East African initiative was pressing to extend the truce, which was due to run out Thursday night, for another three days. The head of the military, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, said he had accepted the proposal, but there was no immediate word from his rival, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the Rapid Support Forces.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged U.S. nationals who want to leave to get to an airfield north of Khartoum for evacuation flights before the truce runs out Thursday at midnight. “The situation could deteriorate over the coming days,” he warned. Britain says it evacuated 536 people on six flights to Cyprus as of Wednesday night.

Even in the capital, fighting has not stopped, residents said. In the western region of Darfur, residents said the violence was escalating to its worst yet.

Darfur has been a battleground between the military and the paramilitary RSF since the conflict began in mid-month. In the city of Genena, the provincial capital of West Darfur, one of the region’s five provinces, residents said the fighting was now dragging in tribal militias, tapping into longtime hatreds between the region’s two main communities – one that identifies as Arab, the other as East or Central African.

In the early 2000s, Darfur was scene of an insurgency by African tribes which had long complained of discrimination. The Khartoum government responded with a military campaign that rights groups have called genocidal, deploying Arab militias known as the Janjaweed who were accused of widespread killings, rapes and atrocities. The Janjaweed later evolved into the RSF.

Early Thursday, fighters who mostly wore RSF uniforms attacked several neighborhoods across Genena, driving many families from their homes. The violence then spiraled with tribal fighters joining the fray in Genena, a city of around half a million people located near the border with Chad.

“The attacks come from all directions,” said Amany, a Genena resident who asked to withhold her family name for her safety. “All are fleeing.”

It was often unclear who was fighting whom, with a mix of RSF and tribal militias – some allies of the RSF, some opponents – all running rampant. The military has largely withdrawn to its barracks, staying out of the clashes, and residents were taking up arms to defend themselves, said Dr. Salah Tour, a board member of Doctors’ Syndicate in West Darfur.

Fighters, some on motorcycles, roamed the streets, destroying and ransacking offices, shops and homes, several residents said.

“It’s a scorched earth war,” said Adam Haroun, a political activist in West Darfur, speaking by telephone with the sound of gunfire at times drowning out his voice.

Across Genena, damage was widespread from days of fighting, Haroun and other residents said. The city’s main open-air market was completely destroyed. Government offices and aid agencies’ compounds were trashed and repeatedly burned, including U.N. premises and the headquarters of the Sudanese Red Crescent.

Two major camps for displaced people have been burned down, their occupants – mainly women and children from African tribes – dispersed, said Abdel-Shafei Abdalla, a senior official with the General Coordination for Refugees and Displaced in Darfur, a local group that helps administer camps.

“The city is being destroyed,” said Tour, of the Doctors’ Syndicate.

Tour said it was difficult to determine the casualty toll but estimated that the deaths were at least in the dozens. Almost all of Genena’s medical facilities, including its main hospital, have been out of service for days, and the sole hospital still operating can’t be reached because of fighting, he said.

Elsewhere in Darfur, there have been sporadic clashes, particularly in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur province. Thousands have fled their homes in Nyala, and others are too afraid to go outside for food and water, Abdalla said. Earlier this month, fighters allegedly from the RSF destroyed and looted warehouses for aid agencies in Nyala, including that of the World Food Program.

At least 512 people, including civilians and combatants, have been killed in Sudan since April 15, with another 4,200 wounded, according to the Sudanese Health Ministry. The Doctors’ Syndicate, which tracks civilian casualties, has recorded at least 295 civilians killed and 1,790 wounded.

Meanwhile, in Khartoum, residents reported gunfire and explosions in some parts of the capital on Thursday. They said the military’s warplanes bombed RSF positions in the upscale neighborhood of Kafouri. The RSF confirmed its camp in the neighborhood was bombed.

The fighting in the capital has created dire conditions for many struggling to obtain food and water, and electricity is cut off across much of Khartoum and other cities. Multiple aid agencies have had to suspend operations. Fearing that fighting will escalate once more, Sudanese and foreigners have been rushing to escape.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said 14,000 Sudanese have fled into Egypt. Long lines of buses continue to pile up at the border, and tens of thousands more have gone to other borders or to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, trying to get onto ferries to Saudi Arabia.

Hassan Ali, a Dutch citizen who made it to the city of Larnaca in Cyprus on an evacuation flight, told The Associated Press he had spent days trapped at home in Khartoum. Most areas had no water and only intermittent electricity. “Most of the time we (are) locked at home unless you go for something really emergency, food, medication. That’s it.” Many sought shelter in hospitals, even though “most of the hospitals get attacked as well, by both sides.”

“People, they just left everything behind,” he said of those leaving. “There is no cash, There’s no money. You just take your bag.”