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Sudan: Fears of communal conflict persist as ceasefire begins

A man walks past a burnt out bank branch in southern Khartoum on May 24, 2023.   -  
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Sudanese fear the conflict may act as a poison and deepen communal cleavages.

Shendi (River Nile state) residents gathered in support of the army on Tuesday (May 23), as sporadic artillery fire echoed in the capital further south.

Khartoum residents said fighting had calmed following a US and Saudi-brokered ceasefire though.

If this raises faint hopes in the embattled city, some in Shendi are afraid. Some reports of sharpened communal tensions have emerged.

"I thank God, the army is so far trying to preserve its unity and that of the country," Yasser confesses.

"I hope that they will continue on this path because we are facing many tribal conflicts today, especially as our country's population consists of hundreds of tribes, races and dialects."

"I am afraid of a Somalia-like scenario, as people now are turning to racism and tribalism."

Volker Perthes, the  UN envoy to Sudan in his Security Council address on Monday (May 22) warned that "the conflict risks to expand and prolong... with implications for the region."

In some areas fighting "has sharpened into communal tensions, or triggered conflict between communities", he said, after reports of civilians being armed in Darfur.

In the sixth week of war, witnesses reported a relative calm had taken hold, both in greater Khartoum and in the Darfur region's cities of Nyala and El Geneina, which have been among the other main battlegrounds.

"We have not heard shelling in our neighbourhood since last night," said a witness in southern Khartoum.

Residents had reported combat and air strikes in different districts of the capital minutes after the ceasefire formally started at 9:45 pm (1945 GMT) on Monday (May 22).

The battles since April 15 have killed an estimated 1,000 people, sparked mass exodus and the evacuation of foreigners. Over a million Sudanese fled their homes and now internally as others across borders, fuelling concerns for regional stability.

Week-long truce

The week-long truce aims to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid for civilians, and restoration of essential services.

Sudan's de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his troops have been fighting against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces of Sudan's former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.

The pause in fighting longed for by Khartoum residents would enable more of them to flee the city. Nearly 650,000 had already done so during the war, in which numerous ceasefires previously announced were quickly violated.

Before it began, there had been an absence of signals on the ground that the latest truce would be honoured.

Volker Perthes told the Security Council that "fighting and troop movements have continued even today, despite a commitment by both sides not to pursue military advantage before the ceasefire takes effect".

The US and Saudi Arabia said this agreement was different because the seven-page document was "signed by the parties" and would be supported by the monitoring mechanism, a committee with three members each from the US, Saudi, the army and RSF.

Hospitals violation

Neither side has directly blamed the other for breaking this truce -- as they did within minutes after previous ceasefires collapsed.

But the health ministry released a statement on Tuesday accusing the RSF of violating hospitals.

The ministry, loyal to Burhan, said RSF troops "stationed themselves" inside two hospitals in greater Khartoum Tuesday, "assaulting medical staff and ejecting patients".

The RSF called the accusations "lies".

Major fighting has devastated the Darfur region near Chad, where the UN has reported hundreds of civilians killed in the West Darfur capital El Geneina.

Sudan has a long history of military coups. The army in 2019 overthrew the veteran Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir after mass protests against his rule.

Sudanese were promised a gradual transition toward civilian rule, but Burhan and Daglo staged another coup in October 2021 before simmering tensions between the two men flared into the current war.

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