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Heavy fighting in Sudan’s capital as food aid needs grow; witnesses recount church attack

Khartoum, Sudan

Heavy air strikes pounded southern areas of Sudan’s capital on Thursday as clashes flared near a military camp, witnesses said, in fighting that has displaced nearly one million people and left residents of Khartoum struggling to survive.

Air strikes by the army targeting the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces were heard across several residential neighbourhoods in southern Khartoum, including near the Taiba camp, while a police reserve force aligned with the army battled the RSF on the ground, the witnesses said. 

Halime Adam Moussa, a Sudanese refugee who has fled the violence in her country for the second time, walks in line to receive her food portion from World Food Programme (WFP), near the border between Sudan and Chad in Koufroun, Chad, on 9th May, 2023.

Halime Adam Moussa, a Sudanese refugee who has fled the violence in her country for the second time, walks in line to receive her food portion from World Food Programme, near the border between Sudan and Chad in Koufroun, Chad, on 9th May, 2023. PICTURE: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra/File photo.

Strikes could be heard across the Nile in the Sharg al-Nil district as well.

The army has mainly used air power and heavy artillery as it tries to drive back the RSF, which spread out across large areas of Khartoum and its adjoining cities of Bahri and Omdurman across the Nile after fighting erupted on 15th April.


Over four terrifying hours last weekend, masked gunmen affiliated to one of Sudan’s warring factions raided one of Khartoum’s oldest churches, opening fire at church officials as they searched for cash, gold and women, two witnesses said. 

The raid was one of many targeting homes, factories, banks and places of worship that residents have often blamed on the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which have been battling the army across greater Khartoum over the past month.

RSF fighters have spread out through many residential areas as the army has targeted them with air strikes and heavy artillery. Police have disappeared from the streets, leaving locals at the mercy of armed fighters and gangs. 

The RSF, which denied responsibility for the raid on the Mar Girgis (St George) Coptic church, has said in statements its troops are working to protect civilians, and that those committing abuses are criminals who have stolen RSF uniforms.

The attack at the church in the Masalma neighbourhood of Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, began shortly before midnight on 13th May.

The witnesses described the attackers as in their late 20s, with at least one non-Arabic speaker. They wore scarves across their faces leaving only their eyes uncovered, and mismatched clothing including some items of RSF uniform, the witnesses told Reuters by phone. 

The gunmen sprayed bullets at a priest, nuns, and sextons, wounding five of them, said the two witnesses, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. 

“They shouted, ‘Where is the gold? Where is the money? Where are the dollars?” one witness said. They also insulted the church leaders and workers saying, “You are Egyptians, sons of dogs”, calling them infidels, and telling them to convert to Islam.

Just over five per cent of Sudan’s 46 million population is estimated to be Christian, split into 36 denominations, according to data from the Pew Research Centre and the Sudan Council of Churches. Sudan’s Coptic church is part of the Egyptian Coptic church headquartered in Cairo.

During the attack, the assailants led the priest to his house at gunpoint and menaced him with a dagger, before seizing a safe that held gold and cash and stealing a car, the witnesses said. 

They also vandalised the church offices and a sanctuary for Bishop Sarabamoon, the top Coptic Church leader in Sudan, who was present during the attack and beaten with a chair and sticks but not recognised by the gunmen.

The church had an annex with elders and orphan girls, some of whom were hidden as the attack was unfolding.

The warring parties blamed each other for the attack. The army accused the RSF, while the RSF said in a statement that an “extremist” group affiliated with the army was responsible. 

On Tuesday an Anglican church in Al Amarat district in Khartoum, which has seen heavy fighting, said it had been raided and “occupied” by RSF forces who stole a car and broke the doors of the church offices. 

“We don’t know what happened to the rest of the church’s possessions,” Ezekiel Kondo, archbishop of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Sudan, said in a statement on Facebook. 

RSF fighters have also stormed the church of the Virgin Mary in Khartoum, according to social media posts by activists. 

On Thursday, the same gunmen who attacked Mar Girgis returned to raid the apartments used by its priests, according to one of the witnesses who shared photos showing smashed doors, a broken safe, and scattered clothes and personal belongings. 

Despite the repeated raids, the witness said he believed what happened was due to the general turmoil engulfing Sudan, not driven by sectarianism.

“I don’t believe they are targeting the Christians as much as it’s all chaos, chaos, chaos,” he said, adding: “They stormed houses of the Muslims as well. They are looting and stealing.”

– MAGGIE MICHAEL, Cairo, Egypt /Reuters

“The bombardment and the clashes don’t stop and there’s no way to flee from our homes. All our money is gone,” said Salah el-Din Othman, a 35-year-old resident of Khartoum. 

“Even if we leave our houses again we’re afraid that gangs will loot everything in the house…we are living a nightmare of fear and poverty.” 

Violence also flared about 1,000 kilometres west of Khartoum in Nyala, one of Sudan’s largest cities and the capital of South Darfur state, witnesses said. One said heavy artillery including tanks could be heard firing for the first time since a local truce was declared.

Armed gangs had started carrying out robberies in El Obeid, another major city and a trading hub in North Kordofan state, witnesses said.

Both army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, are thought to have remained in Khartoum throughout the fighting.

On Wednesday the army released a video showing Burhan dressed in army fatigues greeting troops at what appeared to be the army headquarters in central Khartoum. 

Aid supplies looted
According to latest estimates, more than 840,000 people have been displaced within Sudan and over 220,000 have fled to neighbouring countries.

The UN World Food Programme said it was ramping up its operations across at least six states in Sudan to assist 4.9 million vulnerable people, as well as assisting those fleeing to Chad, Egypt and South Sudan.

“The fighting in Sudan is devastating lives and livelihoods and forcing people to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing,” WFP East Africa director Michael Dunford said in a statement.

The UN said on Wednesday that more than half of Sudan’s 46 million population needed humanitarian assistance and protection, launching a $US3 billion aid appeal. 

It also said it had received reports of “horrific gender-based violence” in Sudan.

Sudanese non-governmental groups have reported such incidents amid the chaos and looting in Khartoum.

The Emergency Lawyers, an activist legal group, said in a statement that armed men had entered a university in Omdurman located in an area controlled by the RSF on Saturday and that a number of men had raped two women the lawyers group said were foreigners.

The Darfur Bar Association, a human rights organization, said on Tuesday they had spoken to three women who said they were raped after they ventured into central Khartoum searching for food supplies, without specifying who was involved.

The RSF has said its soldiers are instructed to protect civilians and those who fail to do so will be prosecuted.

The aid effort has been hampered by the deaths of some humanitarian workers early in the conflict and repeated cases of looting.

Medical aid agency MSF said that on Tuesday armed men had broken into its warehouse in Khartoum and taken two cars filled with supplies. 

Burhan and Hemedti took the top positions on Sudan’s ruling council following the 2019 overthrow of strongman Omar al-Bashir in a popular uprising. They staged a coup two years later as a deadline to hand power to civilians approached and they began to mobilise their respective forces.

The latest conflict broke out after disputes over plans for the RSF to join the army and over the future chain of command under an internationally backed deal for a political transition towards civilian rule.

Talks mediated by the United States and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah have so far failed to secure a ceasefire.


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