Sudanese crowd at borders to escape amid shaky truce

CAIRO — Sudanese families gathered at a border crossing with Egypt and a major port on Wednesday, desperately trying to escape the violence in their country and sometimes waiting for days without food or shelter, witnesses said. In the capital, Khartoum, the intensity of fighting eased on the second day of a three-day ceasefire.

Taking advantage of the relative calm, many residents in Khartoum and the neighboring city of Omdurman left their homes in search of food and water, queuing at bakeries or grocery stores, after days of being trapped inside by clashes between army and a rival paramilitary. group Some inspected shops or houses that had been destroyed or looted.

“There is a sense of calm in my area and my neighborhoods,” said Mahasen Ali, a tea seller who lives in Khartoum’s southern neighborhood in May. “But they’re all afraid of what’s to come.”

Still, gunfire and explosions could be heard in the city, although residents said the clashes occurred in more limited pockets, mainly around the army headquarters and the Republican Palace in the center of Khartoum and around the Omdurman bases across the Nile River.

With the future of any truce uncertain, many took the opportunity to join the tens of thousands who have poured out of the capital in recent days, trying to escape the crossfire between the forces of Sudan’s two top generals.

The generals’ war for power since April 15 has pushed the population to a near breaking point. Food has become more difficult to obtain, electricity is out in much of the capital and other cities, and many hospitals have closed. Multiple aid agencies have had to suspend operations, a severe blow in a country where a third of the 46 million inhabitants depend on humanitarian assistance.

Many Sudanese fear that the army and its rival Rapid Support Forces will intensify their battle once the international evacuations of foreigners that began on Sunday end. The British government, whose airlift is one of the last still underway, said it had evacuated about 300 people on outbound flights and expected four more on Wednesday, vowing to push ahead as long as possible.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people have made the grueling 15-hour journey across the desert to access points outside the country: the city of Port Sudan, on the eastern coast of the Red Sea, and the Arqin Pass towards in Egypt, on the northern border.

A crowd of Sudanese and foreigners also waited at Port Sudan, trying to check in on a ferry to Saudi Arabia. Dallia Abdelmoniem, a Sudanese political commentator, said she and her family arrived on Monday and have been trying every day to get a place. “Foreigners were given priority,” he told The Associated Press.

Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it evacuated 1,674 people from 56 countries, as well as 13 of its own citizens, from Sudan.

At the Arqin crossing, families have spent the nights outside in the desert, waiting to be let into Egypt. Buses lined up at the crossing.

“It’s a disaster: long queues of elderly people, patients, women and children waiting in miserable conditions,” said Moaz al-Ser, a Sudanese teacher who arrived with his wife and three children at the border a day earlier .

Tens of thousands of Khartoum residents have also fled to neighboring provinces or even to existing displacement and refugee camps in Sudan that house victims of past conflicts.

Egypt said on Wednesday it has moved its embassy to Sudan amid growing security threats in Khartoum, without disclosing the new location. An Egyptian embassy administrator was killed in Khartoum earlier this week. Egypt has close ties with the Sudanese military, but has called on both sides to cease fire.

At least 512 people, including civilians and fighters, have been killed since clashes broke out on April 15, with another 4,200 injured, the Sudanese health ministry said. The Doctors Union, which tracks civilian casualties, said at least 295 civilians have been killed and 1,790 injured.

The 72-hour ceasefire announced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to last until Thursday afternoon. Many fear that the fighting will only intensify once the evacuations of foreigners, which appeared to be in their final stages, are complete.

But a senior British military officer said the UK evacuation operation could continue regardless of the ceasefire. Brig. Dan Reeve said conditions at Wadi Saeedna airfield near Khartoum are “calm” and that the Sudanese armed forces have “good control” of the surrounding area.

The British High Commissioner in Cyprus, Irfin Siddiq, said UK authorities have contacted 1,000 British citizens in Sudan directly to tell them to head to the airport. Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said five flights arrived from Sudan on Wednesday, with a total of 391 Britons on board.

A series of brief ceasefires over the past week have either failed outright or resulted in only intermittent pauses that have allowed hundreds of foreigners to be evacuated by air and land. The two rival generals, army chief General Abdel Fattah Burhan and RSF commander General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, have so far ignored calls for negotiations to end the crisis and appear to be seeking victory total

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that his power struggle is not only putting Sudan’s future at risk, but “is lighting a fuse that could detonate across borders, causing immense suffering for years and delaying development by decades.”

Guterres cited reports of armed clashes across the country, with people fleeing their homes in Blue Nile and North Kordofan states as well as across West Darfur. Joyce Msuya, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council that “there have been numerous reports of sexual and gender-based violence”.

Msuya said the UN has received reports “of tens of thousands of people arriving in the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan”.

In another development, Dr Mike Ryan, head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, appeared to back off concerns expressed a day earlier by the WHO representative in Sudan about fighters seizing a laboratory where pathogens such as polio, measles and cholera are stored. .

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Ryan said the main risk of exposure was to the fighters themselves. “The main risk to the health and well-being of the people of Sudan remains conflict, and we must remain focused on that.”

Burhan and Dagalo came to power after a popular uprising in 2019 prompted generals to oust Sudan’s autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir. Since then, Sudanese have tried to transition to democratic government, but in 2021 Burhan and Dagalo joined forces in a coup that purged a transitional government. They fell this month amid tensions over a rough new plan to reintroduce civilian rule.

Both the army and the RSF have a long history of brutalizing activists and protesters, as well as other rights abuses.

Also on Wednesday, the army said al-Bashir was being held in a military hospital, making its first official statement on his location since fighting broke out. An attack on the prison where al-Bashir and many of his former officials had been held raised questions about their whereabouts.

In a statement, the military said al-Bashir, former Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Muhammad Hussein and other former officials had been taken to Aliyaa Military Hospital before clashes broke out across the country. Both al-Bashir and Hussein are wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes related to the Darfur conflict.

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