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Civilians killed in crossfire in Sudan's second city as war spreads

FILE PHOTO: Fleeing Sudanese seek refuge in Chad

By Nafisa Eltahir

(Reuters) - As shells rained down on her neighbourhood in Sudan's Nyala city on Aug. 23, Mahla Adam decided to rush home instead of sheltering under a nearby bridge as she and many others had done during countless clashes.

But this time, a projectile hit next to the bridge, and when she returned she said she counted dozens of bodies torn apart by shrapnel -- many of them neighbours, friends and relatives, and most of them women.

The intensity of the fighting in Nyala, located in South Darfur State and the biggest city in Sudan outside Khartoum, shows how the conflict that engulfed the capital nearly five months ago has spread to other parts of the country with deadly effect.

Fighting continued on Wednesday, with residents saying they could see warplanes overhead. Volunteers providing medical aid said they had counted at least 10 people killed, while residents said the real number was more than 30.

With Sudan's health system in a state of collapse and phone networks and government offices often out of service, exact casualty figures are hard to establish.

"Some families had two, three, five people killed, all at once," said Adam, describing the impact of the Aug. 23 strike that left 35 dead according to her count. As fighting continued overhead, bodies were hurriedly buried in a mass grave, she said.

Aid agencies also reported the Aug. 23 incident. One of the agencies, Save the Children, put the toll at 39.

Nyala residents say the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have occupied most of the city and the army has used heavy artillery to try to repel them.

That mirrors the war's pattern in Khartoum, where hundreds of civilians have been killed and there have been several recent reports of mass casualties, including nearly 50 killed by an army strike on a market this week.

Nyala's civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Satellite images from the Sudan Conflict Observatory, a U.S.-based monitoring platform, show damage to public buildings including a market and hospital.

Armed RSF soldiers and militiamen roam the streets, and many buildings and homes have been looted, escaped residents say.

The strike happened as the army and RSF exchanged artillery fire and RSF soldiers were seen near the bridge. The RSF blamed the army for that attack when reached for comment, while the army did not respond.

Prior to the incident, the United Nations said that at least 60 people had been killed in Nyala in one week in August.

Idris Minnawi, a volunteer with a group providing emergency aid, said he thought the real number killed in the city since the start of the war was in the thousands.

'GUARDING THEIR HOMES'

Nyala's population grew rapidly after the conflict that escalated in Darfur after 2003, forcing over two million people from their homes. Some 500,000 had been living in camps around the city before the current conflict started.

Since then, the U.N. estimates that more than 600,000 of South Darfur's 5 million residents have been uprooted. More people have fled than in any other state except Khartoum.

"Most people have left Nyala. The rest either don't have enough money to leave, or say they're guarding their homes," said Zeinab Elsadig, 24, a resident who fled last month.

"We said the same until the shells fell on top of us and then we left."

Like West Darfur where the war has sparked ethnically targeted killings, South Darfur has been largely cut off from aid, humanitarian workers say.

Water and food are hard to come by as stores have been depleted, said Minnawi.

More than half the residents of South Darfur are projected to be at crisis or emergency levels of acute hunger, according to the IPC measure calculated by U.N. agencies and other groups.

Only one hospital is still functioning and supplies there have run out, residents and aid groups say.

After the strike, Adam said she and her neighbours were forced to use scarves, sheets, and perfume to administer first aid.

"My mother was pouring ash on our neighbour's wound to stop the bleeding," she said. Soon after, Adam and her family joined thousands of others leaving Nyala.

(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir; Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, editing by Aidan Lewis, William Maclean)