Violence in Sudan’s Darfur Region Dims Hopes of a Long-Sought Peace

NAIROBI, Kenya — Hundreds of people have been killed or injured in violence that enveloped Sudan’s Darfur region in recent days, dampening hopes for long-lasting peace in an area that has been plagued by fighting and instability for decades.

The violence came just weeks after peacekeepers with the United Nations and the African Union started a phased withdrawal after 13 years in the region.

The withdrawal plan was set after some rebel groups in Darfur signed a peace agreement with Sudan’s transitional government, which came to power in 2019 when a popular revolution brought down longtime President Omar al-Bashir. The International Criminal Court has charged Mr. Bashir over atrocities committed by his forces and allied militias in the long-running war in Darfur.

The recent violence began after an argument in which a man was stabbed to death, the prime minister’s office said. Armed militias then attacked the western city of El Geneina and besieged a camp for internally displaced people. By Sunday, 83 people had been killed and 160 others wounded, including children and members of the security forces, the Sudanese doctors’ union said in a tweet.

Over 50,000 people were displaced from the camp and nearby villages and towns, the United Nations said.

The clashes are the latest in a region that for nearly two decades has been blighted by conflict and violence. The fighting began in 2003, when rebels rising up against political and economic marginalization of African ethnic minorities by Sudan’s Arab majority launched an insurgency against Mr. al-Bashir’s government.

Mr. al-Bashir responded by mobilizing both the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed, a militia drawn from local Arab tribes, which waged a campaign of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

The conflict led to the deaths of more than 300,000 people, with 2.7 million others displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations.

In response to the recent violence, the authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in the region. The government also sent a delegation including the attorney general and members of the military and justice ministry to investigate and restore calm.

The international community called on the government to de-escalate the situation, which analysts described as a stark failure of the new government to keep the region safe.

“The government comprehensively failed its first real test of maintaining security,” said Jonas Horner, a senior Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The violence comes almost two years after Mr. al-Bashir was removed from office in a coup, after which a transitional government promised to investigate the atrocities committed in the region under his reign. Since March 2009, he was been the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, but the government so far has not turned him over.

Last August, the transitional government signed a milestone peace agreement with all but a few of the rebel groups. In the wake of that deal, the United Nations-African Union mission in Darfur said in December that it would end its mission in the region, hand over operations to the Sudanese government and withdraw all of its uniformed and civilian personnel by June.

The announced withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces drew opposition from some leaders in the region and civil society organizations at the time. The African Union and some members of the U.N. Security Council, including France and Britain, expressed concern that the troop departure might create a security void.

The rapid mushrooming of the latest conflict from a market fistfight into a violent interethnic episode “illustrates the persistent insecurity in Darfur as well as the folly of the Sudanese government’s premise that security in the region had improved sufficiently” for the peacekeepers to leave, said Mr. Horner, the analyst.

The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, urged Sudan’s government to de-escalate the situation surrounding the most recent violence.

Such inter-communal violence in Darfur doubled during the second half of 2020, and West Darfur, of which El Geneina is the capital, accounted for half the reported cases, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, a body that represents 17 national trade unions, called on the authorities to hold accountable the perpetrators of the recent violence.

“This heinous, treacherous attack must not pass without bringing the criminals involved in it to accountability and speedy trials,” the professionals association said on Twitter. It called for “drastic measures” to be taken to prevent further violence, including deploying security forces, disarming tribes and setting up a reconciliation commission among communities.

For now, the situation remains delicate. The newly imposed curfew has hindered the movement of doctors and the availability of blood, according to the Sudanese doctors’ union.

And on Monday, the organization Save the Children lamented the state of the region’s health facilities that were treating the wounded.

“We have seen disturbing photos of injured and dying people on the floors and corridors of hospitals,” Arshad Malik, the head of the organization’s Sudan office, said in a statement. He also said there had been “reports of large numbers of injured people arriving at health facilities with few medical staff to attend to them.”

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