Sudan talks to resume in Saudi Arabia amid heavy fighting
KHARTOUM (Reuters) -Khartoum residents described fierce battles on Saturday with fighters roving the streets and little sign Sudan's warring sides were respecting an agreement to protect civilians ahead of ceasefire talks due to resume in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
Fighting has rocked Khartoum and adjoining areas as well as Geneina in the Darfur region since the warring army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary force agreed a "declaration of principles" on Thursday.
"It was much worse this morning compared to the past two days. You could clearly hear the tanks and the RSF were patrolling the streets more than usual," said Hani Ahmed, 28.
The conflict that broke out a month ago has killed hundreds of people, sent more than 200,000 into neighbouring states, displaced another 700,000 inside the country, and risks drawing in outside powers and destabilising the region.
Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres said displaced people living in a large camp in north Darfur were cutting down to a single meal a day because food aid programmes had been halted by fighting. It said the condition of already malnourished children would likely deteriorate.
Airspace will stay closed except for aid flights until May 31, authorities said on Saturday.
The two sides have battled through previous truces and have shown no sign of being willing to compromise. Although the RSF promised to uphold Thursday's agreement, the army has not yet commented on it.
Neither side seems able to secure a quick victory, with the army able to call on air power but the RSF dug into residential districts throughout the capital.
"We only see the army in the sky but in terms of face-to-face contact we only see the RSF. They're the ones on the ground," Ahmed said.
For civilians the conflict has unleashed a nightmare of bombardment, random gunfire, home invasions and looting, amid flickering electricity supply, shortages of water and food, and little chance of medical help with injuries.
"Our neighbourhood is now completely under RSF control, They loot and harass people and wander around, always armed, taking shelter wherever they want," said Duaa Tariq, 30, an art curator in Khartoum.
Tariq said she hoped the talks in Jeddah could lead to a ceasefire, but was doubtful, adding: "We can't really trust either side because they don't have control of their soldiers on the ground".
Fighting is unabated since the two sides agreed the declaration of principles to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access.
Residents say RSF fighters continue to occupy properties, which the force has denied doing, and the army carries out air strikes that residents say hit civilian targets.
Hashim Mohamed, 35, said he had found bread in a local shop for the first time in a week. "It's not that bread isn't available, but it's a longer walk which means more brushes with danger," he said.
Out shopping on Saturday, he had to duck down as gunfire rattled nearby and RSF fighters cruised the neighbourhood in civilian cars.
The resumed talks in Jeddah will start by discussing ways to implement the existing agreement, then move on to a lasting ceasefire that could pave the way for a civilian government, officials say.
Saudi Arabia has invited army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to the Arab League summit in Jeddah, a senior Saudi diplomat said, but he is not expected to leave Sudan for security reasons, two other diplomats in the Gulf said.
Burhan was invited because he is head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, in which his rival, RSF chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, is deputy.
Saudi Arabia has had close ties to both men since the army and the RSF sent troops to help the Saudi-led coalition in its war against Houthi forces in Yemen.
Some of the worst fighting has taken place in Darfur, where a war has simmered since 2003, killing 300,000 people and displacing 2.5 million.
The Darfur Bar Association, a local rights group, said at least 77 people were killed in Geneina, where fighting flared on Friday after a two-week lull.
"Armed groups on motorcycles and RSF vehicles attacked on Friday and are continuing to commit acts of killing, looting, arson and terror," the group said.
The RSF has denied moving from its positions in Darfur and blamed the strife there on the army and on loyalists of former president Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019, saying they had armed civilians.
Residents said on Friday the army did not intervene in the Geneina strife.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh and Nafisa Eltahir and Adam Makary in Cairo; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Frances Kerry and David Holmes)