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Sudan's military warns of potential clashes with powerful paramilitary forces

Sudan’s military warned Thursday of potential clashes with the country’s powerful paramilitary force, which it said deployed troops in the capital of Khartoum and other cities.

Tensions between the military and the paramilitary, known as Rapid Support Forces or RSF, have escalated in recent months, forcing a delay in the signing of an internationally backed deal with political parties to revive the country’s democratic transition.

In a statement, the military said the buildup of the RSF in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country was done without “the approval of, or coordination with” the armed forces’ leadership and presents a clear “violation of the law.”

The paramilitary has also deployed troops in northern Sudan, along the border with Egypt, with local media reporting that the RSF attempted to build a military base there. Also, videos circulating on social media Thursday show what appear to be RSF-armed vehicles being transported into Khartoum, further to the south.

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The latest tensions between the army and the paramilitary stem from a disagreement over how the RSF should be integrated into the military — a key condition of an unsigned transition deal for Sudan. The army-RSF rivalry, however, dates back to the rule of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019.

Under al-Bashir, the paramilitary force, led by powerful Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, grew out of former militias known as the Janjaweed that executed a brutal crackdown in Sudan’s Darfur region during the decades of conflict there.

Sudanese Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Nabil Abdullah reads a statement warning of conflict after the recent deployment of powerful paramilitary forces in the country's capital and other cities. Tensions between the military and the paramilitary have escalated in recent months.

Sudanese Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Nabil Abdullah reads a statement warning of conflict after the recent deployment of powerful paramilitary forces in the country’s capital and other cities. Tensions between the military and the paramilitary have escalated in recent months. (SUNA via AP)

Although both the army and the RSF together carried out a coup in October 2021 that upended Sudan’s transition to democracy, friction between them became increasingly visible in recent months, with conflicting public statements, heavy military presence in Khartoum and parallel foreign trips by military and RSF leaders.

The RSF said Wednesday that its presence in northern Sudan and elsewhere is aimed at “achieving security and stability and fighting human trafficking and illegal migration.” The wealthy paramilitary force is estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters.

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According to Kholood Khair, founder and director of Confluence Advisory, a think tank in Khartoum, tensions between the army and the RSF are at an all-time high and Thursday’s military’s statement just fell “short of accusing the RSF of committing an act of rebellion.”

The escalation has raised concerns of new fighting in a country known for internal armed conflicts.

Many took to social media to express their concerns. Sudan’s National Umma Party — one of the country’s largest political groups — called for restraint and urged “all political forces” against escalating the situation. The party called an emergency meeting Thursday morning with military and RSF representatives and senior political figures.

No details immediately emerged following the meeting.

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The 2021 coup removed a Western-backed, power-sharing administration and dashed Sudanese aspirations for democratic rule after three decades of autocracy and repression under al-Bashir.

A months-long popular uprising forced the military’s overthrow of al-Bashir in April 2019. Since then, the former president, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide in the Darfur conflict, has been imprisoned in Khartoum.

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