A regional governor in Sudan has been killed after publicly blaming the deaths of civilians on the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), as the brutal war between the group and the Sudanese army entered its third month.
The killing of West Darfur state governor Khamis Abakar late on Wednesday marked a new escalation in the conflict that began on April 15 when months-long tensions between the army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF commander, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, exploded into war.
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Footage circulating on social media late on Wednesday appeared to show a group of armed men, some wearing RSF uniforms, detaining Abakar. Other clips purportedly showed the governor on the ground with wounds to his neck and face.
Hours earlier, he had accused the RSF and allied Arab fighters of “genocide“.
“Civilians are being killed randomly and in large numbers,” he told Al Hadath TV, urging the international community to intervene to protect people in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur.
“We haven’t seen the army leave its base to defend people,” he said.
The Sudanese army accused the RSF of “kidnapping and assassinating” the governor. The killing had added a “new chapter” to the RSF’s “record of barbaric crimes that it has been committing against all the Sudanese people”, it said on Facebook, calling the incident a “brutal act”.
Later on Thursday, the RSF issued a statement saying it condemned Abakar’s “assassination … by outlaws amid the continuing tribal conflict in the state”.
It added: “We hold the Sudanese Military Intelligence, a wing of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and its radical Islamist backers linked to the former regime of dictator Omar al-Bashir responsible for fueling this conflict by arming the tribes.”
The paramilitary group denies any involvement in attacks against civilians in Darfur, but refugees who spoke to Al Jazeera last month in settlements inside Chad said they had seen men wearing RSF uniforms joining the fight alongside Arab armed groups. The refugees also said that violence erupted in their towns and villages after the army or the local police left, creating a power vacuum that was filled by Arab militias. Not a single resident said the army offered any protection.
The United Nations said on Wednesday that the conflict in Sudan had displaced more than 2 million people, and escalating attacks in Darfur could amount to “crimes against humanity”.
In el-Geneina the RSF and allied fighters have rampaged through the city over the past week, killing and wounding hundreds of people, local activists and UN officials were quoted as saying by The Associated Press news agency.
Activists and residents in el-Geneina also reported that dozens of women were sexually attacked inside their homes and while trying to flee the fighting. Almost all rape cases were blamed on the RSF, which has not responded to repeated requests for comment, the AP reported.
Volker Perthes, the UN envoy in Sudan, said on Tuesday that as the situation deteriorated in Darfur, he was alarmed by the situation in el-Geneina, which had taken on an “ethnic dimension”.
“There is an emerging pattern of large-scale targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnic identities, allegedly committed by Arab militias and some armed men in Rapid Support Force [RSF]’s uniform,” Perthes said in a statement.
“These reports are deeply worrying and, if verified, could amount to crimes against humanity,” he said.
In Geneina, there is an emerging pattern of targeted attacks against civilians on ethnic basis allegedly committed by Arab militias and some men in RSF uniform. If verified, these attacks could amount to crimes against humanity.
See my complete statement: https://t.co/Z9jBsS3rDo
— Volker Perthes (@volkerperthes) June 13, 2023
Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, also condemned “the shocking violence” in el-Geneina.
She warned in a statement on Tuesday that such fighting could turn into “renewed campaigns of rape, murder, and ethnic cleansing amounting to atrocity crimes”.
Darfur was the scene of genocidal war in the early 2000s, when ethnic Africans rebelled, accusing the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of discrimination. Former President Omar al-Bashir’s government was accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab fighters, known as the Janjaweed, who targeted civilians. Millions were displaced and an estimated 300,000 were killed in attacks attributed to Janjaweed fighters, who later evolved into the RSF and became a legalised governmental force in 2017.
In a statement, the RSF called the fighting in el-Geneina a tribal conflict, blaming the country’s former regime for fanning the flames. It said it had been making efforts to get aid into the city.