CAIRO (AP) — Sudan’s military suspended its participation in talks with a paramilitary force it’s been battling for weeks for control of the northeastern African country, a military spokesman said Wednesday.
The development was a blow to the United States and Saudi Arabia, who have been mediating between the two sides. The conflict has plunged Sudan into chaos.
Brig. Nabil Abdalla, a spokesperson for the Sudanese armed forces, told The Associated Press that the move is a protest against the Rapid Support Forces’ “repeated violations” of the humanitarian cease-fire, including their continued occupation of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in the capital, Khartoum.
Sudan descended into chaos after fighting erupted in mid-April between the military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the RSF, commanded by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. The fighting has killed at least 866 civilians and wounded thousands more, according to the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate, which tracks civilian casualties. The toll could be much higher, the medical group had previously said.
Abdalla, the spokesperson, said the military wants to ensure that the terms of a U.S.-Saudi-brokered truce “be fully implemented” before discussing further steps. He did not elaborate.
On May 21, both sides signed a cease-fire agreement allowing for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the restoration of essential services destroyed in the clashes. They also agreed to stop the looting of residential properties and humanitarian aid, as well as the taking over of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and power plants.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia or the United States. So far, there have been seven declared cease-fires, all of which have been violated to some extent.
Responding to the military’s move, the RSF said it “unconditionally backs the Saudi-U.S. initiative.”
Two other senior military officials said the army sent a letter to the Saudi and American mediators detailing what they called the RSF violations. They said the military delegation was still in the venue of the talks in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.
One of the officials said the decision was prompted by the mediators’ efforts to move to the next stage of negotiations without “fully implementing the terms” of the humanitarian cease-fire. That stage includes a long-term cease-fire and engaging in negotiations to settle the disputes between the two sides, he said.
Both senior officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
For only the fifth time since he took office in January 2017, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Wednesday asked to brief the Security Council behind closed doors on Sudan, a sign of his increasing concern about the fighting and the U.N.’s operations in the country.
Guterres’ briefing followed Burhan’s demand in a letter to the secretary-general last Friday that the U.N. special envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, be removed, saying his approach in pre-war talks between the generals helped inflame the conflict and accusing him of “being partisan.” The U.N. chief was “shocked” by the letter.
In brief remarks to reporters after the closed meeting, Guterres said he reaffirmed to the council “my full confidence in Volker Perthes” and told the 15 council members it’s up to them to decide whether to continue the U.N. political mission in Sudan, which Perthes leads, or whether “it’s time to end it.”
The political mission, known as UNITAMS, was established by the council on June 3, 2020, to provide support to Sudan during its political transition to democratic rule. An October 2021 military coup upended Sudan’s democratic transition after a popular uprising forced the military to remove autocratic President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019.
UNITAMS’ mandate was extended twice and expires on Saturday, and the council needs to decide on its future this week.
The United States, United Kingdom and many other countries voiced support for Perthes at Wednesday’s meeting. But when Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia was asked whether he supports the U.N. envoy he replied, “we support UNITAMS,” adding that perhaps the situation in Sudan needs to be stabilized before the council decides “how the U.N. presence can be effective.”
On Tuesday, the military released footage that showed Burhan inspecting troops. The army chief warned that the military would resort to “full lethal force” if the RSF “doesn’t respond to the voice of reason.” The military’s aircrafts were also seen flying over the capital.
Residents, meanwhile, reported clashes late Tuesday in parts of Khartoum and its neighboring city of Omdurman.
Both sides traded blame for violating the cease-fire.
The military’s move came two days after the sides agreed to extend the shaky cease-fire for five more days, after Washington and Riyadh signaled impatience with persistent truce violations.
In a joint statement Sunday, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia called out both warring sides for specific breaches of a weeklong truce rather than issue another general appeal to respect agreements.
The statement said the military continued to carry out airstrikes, while the RSF was still occupying people’s homes and seizing properties. Fuel, money, aid supplies and vehicles belonging to a humanitarian convoy were stolen, with theft occurring both in areas controlled by the military and by the RSF, it added.
The fighting has caused widespread destruction in residential areas in Khartoum and its adjacent cities of Omdurman and Bahri. Residents reported storming and looting of their homes, mostly by the RSF. Many posted photos and videos of their looted homes on social media, condemning the pillaging.
The conflict has also turned Khartoum and other urban areas into battlefields, forcing more than 1.65 million people to flee their homes to safer areas inside Sudan or cross into neighboring countries, according to U.N. figures released Wednesday. Early on, foreign governments raced to evacuate their diplomats and nationals as thousands of foreign residents scrambled to get out of the country.
According to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, around 425,500 people fleeing the conflict have crossed into neighboring countries. Egypt is hosting the largest number of refugees with more than 175,500, followed by Chad with around 114,700 and South Sudan with over 85,200, said the IOM .
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.