Sudan’s warring parties have met for direct talks in Saudi Arabia as mediators pressed for an end to a conflict that has killed hundreds and sent tens of thousands fleeing.
Saudi Arabia and the United States welcomed the start of the “pre-negotiation talks” on Saturday in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and urged the belligerents to actively engage and come to a lasting ceasefire, a joint statement said.
Numerous truces have been violated since the conflict broke out in mid-April. The US-Saudi initiative in Jeddah is the first serious attempt to end fighting that has endangered Sudan’s fragile transition following years of unrest and uprisings.
Sudan’s Forces of Freedom and Change, a political grouping leading an internationally-backed plan to transfer the country to civilian rule, also welcomed the Jeddah talks.
The pro-democracy movement said the discussions would be “a first step” to stop the country’s collapse and called on leaders of the military and the RSF to make a “bold decision” to end the conflict.
Confirming his group’s attendance, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, said he hoped the talks would achieve their intended aim of securing safe passage for civilians.
“We remain hopeful that the discussions will achieve their intended goals,” he said.
At least 550 people were killed, including civilians, and more than 4,900 wounded as of Monday, according to the Sudanese health ministry.
The conflict erupted on April 15 between the army of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemedti’s RSF following the collapse of an internationally-backed plan for a transition with civilian parties.
Al-Burhan, a career army officer, heads a ruling council installed after a 2021 military coup and the 2019 removal of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir, while Hemedti was his deputy.
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from the capital Khartoum, said the talks were focused on opening humanitarian corridors for people to escape the fighting.
“These are not talks to … try to reach a political or military solution for the differences between the RSF and the Sudanese army,” she said.
“The army has said it’s focused on those who need assistance, and there are plenty of them here in the capital and around the country. Humanitarian organisations have repeatedly stated the issue of safety is what’s preventing them from being able to reach those in need, whether it’s in Khartoum or in neighbouring states.”
The discussions will also address providing protection to civilian infrastructure, including health facilities that have been overwhelmed and suffer from dire shortages of both staff and medical supplies, one military official said.
An RSF official said they would also discuss a mechanism to monitor the current ceasefire, one of a series of truces that failed to stop the fighting.
The United Nations has significantly cut back its operations in Sudan after three of its employees were killed, and its warehouses were looted in the fighting. It has sought guarantees of safe passage of humanitarian aid.
Despite an ongoing ceasefire, Morgan said residents in Khartoum on Saturday could see fighter jets flying throughout the night, with alleged air raids on RSF positions in the northern city of Bahri.
“Around the vicinity of the presidential palace where there’s always been fighting … we were able to hear heavy artillery and air strikes,” she said.
‘We were faced by mobs’
UN agencies have warned of a major humanitarian catastrophe if fighting continues.
On Saturday, the World Health Organization said 30 tonnes of medical supplies had arrived in Port Sudan by plane, one of the first such shipments since the fighting began.
A group of countries led by the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Norway is set to request a UN Human Rights Council meeting on Sudan next week.
The UN refugee agency estimated the number of Sudanese fleeing to neighbouring countries would reach 860,000, and aid agencies would need $445m to assist them.
Qatar flew a relief flight into Sudan carrying some 40 tons of food and left with 150 evacuees early Saturday as fighting continued.
The Qatari Emiri Air Force C-17 Globemaster touched down in Port Sudan, 670km (415 miles) northeast of Sudan’s violence-torn capital of Khartoum. The port city has been spared in the fighting and has become one of the few safe transit points out of the country, whether by air or by ships crossing the Red Sea heading to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Evacuees boarded the C-17 bearing the livery of Qatar Airways, the nation’s long-haul carrier. People described facing “very scary, terrifying” conditions trying to leave Khartoum for the airfield.
“We still faced many difficulties because of the lack of security in the country due to the security forces being occupied with the battles. We were faced by mobs on the way,” said Nemat Allah Saber Ibrahim, a Sudanese doctor evacuated who lives in Qatar. “But thank God we have arrived safely to the Port of Sudan.”