What started the fighting in Sudan and what could it mean for the region?

International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar reports on the outbreak of fighting in Sudan's capital

Fighting in Sudan continues to intensify as tensions between the armed forces and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), that had been brewing for weeks, spilled over into violence.

Led by Sudan's two most powerful generals, who jointly orchestrated a military coup together in 2021, the sustained fighting threatens to tip the country into civil war.

At stake is control of a resource-rich nation of more than 46 million people.

What is behind this latest fighting and what could it mean for Sudan, the region, and the wider world?

What is the background to the fighting?

Sudan has been without a parliament since a popular uprising forced the military to overthrow of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 in an uprising. The army and RSF collaborated to overthrow al-Bashir.

But now these former allies are embroiled in heavy fighting for control of the country.

The fighting erupted just as Sudan stood on the thresehold of reviving a drive for a democractic, civilian government after decades of military rule.

In recent months, negotiations put the country on the path to democracy, that had been halted by a coup, led by the now warring generals, in October 2021.

ITV News' Ayshah Tull explains the background to the conflict

Who is behind the fighting?

Behind the violence is a power struggle between the armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group.

Armed forces chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the head of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo both hold the top two positions on Sudan's ruling council.

Under international pressure, Burhan and Dagalo had agreed to a framework agreement with political parties and pro-democracy groups but as negotiations towards a final agreement drew closer, tensions between the two groups escalated and tipped over into violence, triggered by a dispute over how RSF would be integrated into the military and who would have ultimate control over fighters and weapons.

Dagalo, whose forces grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias in Sudan’s Darfur region, described himself as a defender of democracy and branded Burhan as the aggressor and a “radical Islamist.”

Dagalo has close ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and has been sending troops to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s long-running civil war.

Both generals have a long history of human rights abuses. At the same time, both men have powerful foreign backers, making them potentially susceptible to mounting diplomatic pressure to end the fighting.

Is a ceasefire likely?

A quick, peaceful end does not look promising. Sudan's army and the RSF blame each other for the fighting. Neither man, both backed by tens of thousands of troops, were willing to back down or negotiate.

On Monday, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said al-Burhan has ordered the dissolution of the RSF and branded it a rebellious group.

The armed forces have said they would not negotiate with the RSF unless the force is dissolved, while RSF leader Hemedti, on Saturday called military chief al-Burhan a "criminal" and a "liar".

Fierce clashes between Sudan's military and the country's powerful paramilitary have erupted in the capital and elsewhere. Credit: AP

Could the fighting escalate further?

The escalating violence, which has spread from the capital, Khartoum to other parts of the country, raises the spectre of civil war in Sudan.

The clashes have reached the strategic coastal city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea and eastern regions, on the borders with Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Fighting was also reported in the Darfur region, an area torn apart by a 20-year war.

What could be the wider impact on the country and the region?

Escalting violence could have a devastating impact on an already fragile country.

Sudan has been affected by rising levels of hunger in recent years driven by a deepening economic crisis. An estimated 15 million people face acute food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.

The WFP has temporarily halted all operations in the region after three of its employees were killed in the fighting on Saturday leaving millions at risk of hunger.

What have world leaders said?

Top diplomats, including the US secretary of state, the UN secretary-general, the EU foreign policy chief, the head of the Arab League and the head of the African Union Commission, have all urged an end to the violence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken renewed his call for a truce and a return to negotiations during a meeting of the G7 on Monday.

“People in Sudan want the military back in the barracks,” he said. “They want democracy. They want the civilian-led government, Sudan needs to return to that path.”

This satellite photo by Planet Labs PBC shows fires burning near a hospital in Khartoum. Credit: AP

What could be the wider geopolitcal implications?

Sudan, strategically located at the crossroads of Africa and the Arab world, may feel like a country far removed from Europe, but the effects of this conflict have wider international implications.

During the decades-long rule of strongman al-Bashir, who was deposed in 2019, Russia was a dominant force. After al-Bashir was overthrown, the United States and European nations began competing with Russia for influence in Sudan, which is rich in natural resources, including gold.

In recent years, the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner has made inroads in the country. Sudanese military leaders appear to have given Wagner control of gold mines in return for military and intelligence training, as well as surveillance and protection of sites and top officials. The Russian mercenaries even help run RSF social media pages.

Western powers fear military leaders, if they wrestle control, would ratify a Russian naval base in Port Sudan with would see up to 300 Russian troops stationed on the Red Sea, which Sudanese military leaders have previously agreed to.

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