Sudan warring sides to start talks amid persistent fighting
Air strikes battered Sudan's capital on Saturday, as fighting entered a fourth week only hours before the warring parties are to meet in Saudi Arabia for their first direct talks.
Hundreds of people have been killed since the outbreak of the conflict on April 15 between Sudan's de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the regular army, and his deputy turned rival Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who commands the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
The fighting has seen warplanes bomb targets in Khartoum and the two rival generals' forces engage in intense street battles in the city of five million inhabitants. Multiple truces have been reached, but none has been respected.
In a joint statement, the United States and Saudi Arabia said the army and RSF would hold direct discussions in Jeddah on Saturday, describing them as "pre-negotiation talks".
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States urge both parties to take in consideration the interests of the Sudanese nation and its people and actively engage in the talks toward a ceasefire and end to the conflict," the statement said.
Sudanese officials told AFP on Saturday that both sides were sending negotiators to Jeddah, but the RSF has yet to confirm through official channels that its representatives will attend.
On Saturday morning, even after the army confirmed its representatives were heading to Jeddah, witnesses said warplanes pounded various parts of the Sudanese capital.
- International mediation -
Burhan had given his backing to a seven-day ceasefire announced by South Sudan on Wednesday, but early on Friday the RSF said it was extending by three days a previous truce brokered under US-Saudi mediation.
The US-Saudi statement noted the efforts of other countries and organisations behind this weekend's talks, including Britain, the United Arab Emirates, the Arab League, the African Union and other groups.
At least 700 people have been killed and thousands injured in the fighting that has displaced hundreds of thousands either internally or across the border to neighbouring countries.
Mediation efforts have multiplied since the start of the conflict.
Neighbouring South Sudan, which had negotiated the seven-day truce extension, said late Friday that its president, Salva Kiir, had spoken to the warring generals in Sudan about "his concerns and those of the IGAD leaders" from the East African regional grouping.
While the army had previously said it favoured "African solutions to the continent's issues", it was ultimately the US-Saudi initiative that gained leverage as Sudan had been suspended from the African Union since a 2021 coup.
Burhan and Daglo had together orchestrated the coup in October that year, derailing a transition to democratic rule that had been painstakingly stitched together following the ouster of former autocrat Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
But they later fell out in a bitter power struggle, most recently over the integration of the RSF into the army.
- Humanitarian crisis -
The announcement of the direct talks came following warnings on Thursday from US intelligence chief Avril Haines of a "protracted" conflict that would "create a greater potential for spillover challenges in the region".
In the joint statement, Washington and Riyadh urged "continued, coordinated international support for an expanded negotiation process that should include engagement with all Sudanese parties".
The fighting persisted despite warnings from US President Joe Biden on Thursday of possible sanctions against those responsible for "threatening the peace, security, and stability of Sudan" and "undermining Sudan's democratic transition".
The northeast African country suffered decades of sanctions during the rule of Bashir, ousted in a palace coup in 2019 following mass street protests.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has said it is preparing for an outflow of 860,000 people as a result of the conflict, adding that $445 million would be needed to support them just through October.
The UN also warned on Friday that the fighting could plunge an additional 2.5 million people into food insecurity within months, meaning 19 million people would need aid to stave off famine.
The UN children's agency, UNICEF, warned Friday that "the situation in Sudan has become fatal for a frighteningly large number of children".
Spokesman James Elder said UNICEF had received reports from a trusted partner -- not yet independently verified by the United Nations -- that 190 children were killed and 1,700 wounded during the conflict's first 11 days.