The chaos engulfing the Sudanese capital of Khartoum became significantly more threatening Tuesday when one of the warring factions seized control of a national health lab that contains biological material, according to a U.N. official who called the development “extremely dangerous.”
Dr. Nima Saeed Abid, the World Health Organization’s representative in Sudan, said one of the parties fighting for control of Sudan – he didn’t say which one – “kicked out all of the technicians” from the lab, where measles, cholera and polio samples are held.
“That is extremely, extremely dangerous,” he told a U.N. briefing in Geneva by video call from Port Sudan. “There is a huge biological risk associated with (such) occupation.”
Thousands of Americans, Europeans and Africans were already fleeing Sudan as a new, three-day truce that came into effect late Monday did little to ease the violence overtaking the nation of 46 million, where about one-third of the population depends on humanitarian aid.
“They stop only when they run out of ammunition,” said Amin Ishaq, a resident of the nearby city of Omdurman.
The departure of diplomats, aid workers and other foreigners are terrifying signs for many Sudanese that international powers expect the mayhem to worsen.
Explosions and gunfire echoed across Khartoum despite the cease-fire negotiated by the United States and Saudi Arabia, the latest of several declared but mostly ignored since the recent fighting broke out April 15. Hundreds have died and thousands have been wounded.
Yassir Arman, chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, urged both sides to recognize the truce and allow the Sudanese people to honor and bury their dead.
“There are corpses scattered in the streets, patients who do not find treatment, and (there are) water and electricity cuts,” Arman said in a social media post that urged the international community to help restore infrastructure and provide large generators to hospitals.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SUDAN?The fierce conflict explained.
CEASE-FIRE IN SUDAN: US, Saudi Arabia broker 3-day respite: Live updates
►The U.N. Population Fund has said the fighting threatens tens of thousands of pregnant women, including 24,000 women expected to give birth in the coming weeks.
►Fighting continued Tuesday in Omdurman, across the Nile River from Khartoum. Omdurman resident Amin Ishaq said there were clashes around the state TV headquarters and around military bases just outside Omdurman.
►United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a “catastrophic conflagration” that could take over the whole region. He urged the U.N. Security Council to pressure both sides to “pull Sudan back from the edge of the abyss.”
Deposed leader Omar al-Bashir may be out of prison amid fighting
Amid all the turmoil, the whereabouts of Sudan’s incarcerated former leader are suddenly uncertain. One of the warring sides said he’s in a secure location and the other alleged he has been released.
Deposed leader Omar al-Bashir and other former top officials accused of atrocities were detained over the last four years in a Khartoum prison that was attacked over the weekend. They had been removed from power during mass protests in 2019 by the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, the groups now battling each other.
The combatants had conflicting versions of what happened in the prison attack. Military officials told The Associated Press that al-Bashir and his top lieutenants were moved to a facility in Khartoum for their own safety. They also accused the RSF of impersonating military personnel, releasing inmates and looting the prison.
The RSF, led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, denied the allegations and said the military “forcibly evacuated” the facility as part of a plan to restore al-Bashir to power.
U.S. removes diplomats, but 16,000 American citizens stay in Sudan
U.S. diplomats have been evacuated from Sudan and the Biden administration said it was aiding the exit of private U.S. citizens. Authorities have estimated up to 16,000 U.S. citizens remained in Sudan, although most are Sudanese-Americans the administration says don’t want to leave.
One of them was Dr. Bushra Ibnauf Sulieman, a Sudanese-American physician who headed the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Khartoum and had returned to train doctors after living in the U.S. for years. He was stabbed to death outside his home by unknown assailants, the Doctors’ Syndicate said.
Britain said it’s flying U.K. nationals out of Sudan from an airfield outside Khartoum, and the priority was for families with children, the sick and the elderly. Officials estimate there are as many as 4,000 British citizens in Sudan, 2,000 of whom have registered for evacuation. France, Germany and Spain were among other nations announcing rescue flights.
More than 450 people have been killed and over 4,000 wounded in less than two weeks. The fighting comes less than three years after a rickety peace deal was supposed to end a war that began 20 years ago when the Sudan Liberation Movement attacked Sudanese military forces in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions more displaced.
“In recent days, civilians have again been killed due to heavy weapons being used in densely populated areas,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa. “Civilians in Sudan are caught in unending cycles of indiscriminate armed attacks, as well as other serious crimes and abuses.”
Sudan marks 20 years since start of Darfur conflict
The fighting comes less than three years after a fragile peace deal was supposed to end a war that began 20 years ago today when the Sudan Liberation Movement attacked Sudanese military forces in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions more displaced.
A pro-democracy uprising led to the 2019 ouster of al-Bashir. In 2021, military generals joined forces to seize power in a coup.
Amnesty International says “longstanding impunity” has allowed suspected war criminals in Darfur to remain in leadership positions, contributing to the current violence in Sudan. One-third of the population of 46 million relied on humanitarian assistance, most of which has been suspended because of the escalating conflict.
“The Darfur conflict caused human suffering on a horrendous scale,” Chagutah said. “The ongoing lack of justice and accountability only ensures that suffering continues.”
Who are the combatants?
Sudan has been run by a council of generals since 2021. The council has been led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, the country’s de facto president, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the rival Rapid Support Forces. They have clashed over the proposed move toward civilian rule. Burhan says he will only hand over power to an elected, civilian government. Dagalo accuses Burhan’s government of being “radical Islamists” and claims to be fighting for the democratic process. But his forces, which fought for the Sudanese government in Darfur, were accused of numerous atrocities against civilians.
Africans from neighboring countries flee
Since the beginning of the fighting, at least 20,000 refugees have fled across the border into Chad. A Kenyan Air Force plane carrying the first few dozen evacuees from Sudan landed at the airport in Nairobi on Monday night. Buses rushed hundreds of Egyptian evacuees across its border with Sudan. Last week, Egypt’s military evacuated 177 soldiers, and the foreign ministry said hundreds of Egyptians have fled Sudan by land. Over 10,000 Egyptians are thought to live in Sudan.
While foreigners leave, Sudanese trapped amid fighting
Mona Othman, a Sudanese national, told Africa News Khartoum is “unstable” amid heaving shelling.
“There is no water, no electricity,” she said. “Jets are over us all the time, over the capital. We never expected something like this at all even in dreams, especially in Khartoum. This is something I can’t describe, it is so difficult.”
Contributing: The Associated Press