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Sudan: Panic as the RSF sweeps into el-Gezira, sending thousands fleeing

Paramilitary forces enter army-held central Sudanese state for first time, sparking widespread battles and relentless air strikes
People displaced by the conflict in Sudan walk with their belonging along a road in Wad Madani on 16 December (AFP)
People displaced by the conflict in Sudan walk with their belongings along a road in Wad Madani on 16 December 2023 (AFP)

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has attacked el-Gezira state, pushing into central Sudan for the first time and opening a new front in the Sudanese conflict.

Hot on the heels of significant victories in Khartoum, Darfur and parts of Kordofan, the RSF has now entered areas that have been held soundly by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) since the war broke out in April, places that hold hundreds of thousands of Sudanese displaced by the fighting.

RSF fighters are also reported to be massing outside el-Fasher, North Darfur's state capital in the west, and Babanosa city in West Kordofan state towards the south.

El-Gezira state capital Wad Madani was attacked from different directions on Friday and Saturday, with RSF fighters riding in with hundreds of weapons-mounted vehicles.

Sudanese army warplanes and drones hit back with intensive air strikes.

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Witnesses in Wad Madani and villages across el-Gezira told Middle East Eye that intense clashes and air strikes are ongoing in the city and elsewhere in the state.

The attack has sown panic among el-Gezira's residents and its displaced, most of whom fled the battles in Khartoum, which lies around 150km north of Wad Madani.

Almost six million people live in el-Gezira, 500,000 of whom are people displaced by the fighting in Khartoum. Lying between the White and Blue Niles, the state acts as Sudan's breadbasket, so the attack places greater strain on the country's food security.

The United Nations and other local and international aid organisations have left Wad Madani and suspended their operations in the state, the UN told MEE.

Attacking from different directions

Sudanese in el-Gezira villages told MEE they woke up on Friday morning to the sound of explosions and heavy gunfire. RSF fighters poured into the state from Khartoum, approaching from different directions, witnesses said.

Along the road linking Khartoum and el-Gezira, villagers are fleeing from place to place as Sudanese troops exchange fire with paramilitary fighters.

Wad Madani has been attacked on three sides, residents said. The RSF approached from Khartoum in the north and west, as well as eastern routes through al-Butana.

"It was hundreds of vehicles and thousands of fighters. They entered our village, intimidating the people with intensive firing in the air'

- Hassan Ali, villager, 

Hassan Ali, a resident of al-Hilaliya, 30km from Wad Madani, said hundreds of vehicles entered his village and neighbouring settlements as they swept towards the state capital.

"It was hundreds of vehicles and thousands of fighters. They entered our village, intimidating the people with intensive firing in the air, which wounded several civilians," he told MEE by phone.

Residents of al-Junaid, al-Kamleen, al-Hasahisa and other villages on the road between Khartoum and Wad Madani said they saw RSF vehicles charging through the state without any sign of Sudanese army resistance or even presence.

"We didn't see SAF soldiers on the ground. However, we saw and heard the air forces' air strikes near Madani attempting to defend the city," Ahmed Mohamed told MEE.

People displaced by the conflict in Sudan get on top of the back of a truck moving along a road in Wad Madani, 16 December (AFP)
People displaced by the conflict in Sudan get on top of a truck moving along a road in Wad Madani, 16 December (AFP)

Another witness in Hantoob, a village in Wad Madani's outskirts, said bloody clashes are ongoing on and around Hantoob Bridge, where RSF fighters are attempting to cross the Blue Nile to reach the city. Sudanese army troops have deployed on the bridge and set up several checkpoints around it.

"There are wide and intensive clashes for control of the Hantoob and Abu Haraz bridges leading to Madani," Hantoob resident Hassan Omar said.

'The RSF is besieging Madani at the moment and hasn't begun the real attack on the city. All SAF bases are legitimate targets for our forces'

- Nazar Sid Ahmed, RSF

"Near the Hantoob Bridge, we have seen SAF forces deployed with the help of air forces, which are trying to repulse the RSF, which attacks in consecutive waves of vehicles and intensive fire," he added.

"The bodies of soldiers from both sides are scattered all over the place."

Ahmed Salih told MEE from Wad Madani that the city is gripped by fear and flooded with people from the surrounding areas who have fled the assault.

"The majority of the clashes are in and around Abu Haraz and Hantoob in the outskirts of Madani. We have also seen bombs fall on Nile Street in the centre of the city," he said.

"SAF also started to deploy its forces around the city and evacuate people from some neighbourhoods like al-Dibagag, Maya, Banat and others."

The local resistance committee, part of a network of pro-democracy activists, said thousands were fleeing the city, which has a population of about 700,000 people. The Sudanese military had closed all the bridges across the Blue Nile, it added.

Battles ongoing

Both sides are claiming to be in control of the situation. The RSF claims it is about to enter Wad Madani; the Sudanese military says large reinforcements are on the way and that it will contain the situation within a few days.

"The RSF is besieging Madani at the moment and hasn't begun the real attack on the city. All SAF bases are legitimate targets for our forces," Nazar Sid Ahmed, a member of the RSF negotiation team at the suspended Jeddah peace talks, told MEE.

On Saturday, the RSF said it was intent on "liberating" all of el-Gezira state.

MEE has asked the Sudanese Armed Forces for comment, but did not receive a response.

However, an SAF source acknowledged that fierce battles were ongoing in the al-Butana, Abu Haraz and Hantoob areas around Wad Madani. The source added that in addition to closing roads leading to the city and striking RSF convoys from the air, hundreds of well-trained soldiers were being dropped behind the paramilitary forces.

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The army-aligned Sudanese foreign ministry, meanwhile, said the targeting of el-Gezira was "an extension of the atrocities" the RSF committed in Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofan, "where crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence and attacks on camps of displaced people were committed".

Most of the thousands that have fled Wad Madani have reached neighbouring states like Sennar or safer areas in southern el-Gezira.

Mustafa Gadallah fled to Sennar state and said the prices of bus tickets from Wad Madani have skyrocketed, rising from 13,000 Sudanese pounds ($22) to 50,000 ($83).

Sofie Karlsson, of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told MEE that aid organisations have evacuated some of their staff from the state.

"We have suspended our field missions. Humanitarian organisations have reduced their footprint in Wad Madani due to the security situation," she said.

The US State Department, meanwhile, has urged the RSF to cease its attack.

"The RSF advance has already caused large-scale displacements of vulnerable civilians from el-Gezira state - many of whom have nowhere else to go - and closure of markets in Wad Madani on which many people rely," it said.

Escalation elsewhere

Elsewhere, the resistance committee in North Darfur's el-Fasher said they had witnessed large movements of RSF forces north and east of the city, with clashes breaking out at a main entrance.

"Clashes erupted around el-Fasher, especially in the north of the city at Malit gate. We have also seen RSF movement on the eastern side of the city," the resistance committee said.

Last week, the Sudanese military published videos on its Facebook page showing it deploying large miliary reinforcements to el-Fasher, which is the last city in the restive and strategic region of Darfur that is still in SAF hands.

In southern Sudan, sources in Babanosa city in West Kordofan state, where the majority of Sudan's oil fields are located, told MEE that the RSF is also besieging the city.

They said local mediators are trying to convince the Sudanese army to withdraw from the city.

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