Smoke rises in Khartoum, Sudan, May 3, 2023. Many people are fleeing the conflict in Sudan between the military and a rival paramilitary force. (PHOTO / AP)
RIYADH — Sudan's warring parties were set to hold talks on Saturday in the Saudi city of Jeddah, Riyadh and Washington said, as mediators pressed for an end to a conflict that has killed hundreds and sent tens of thousands fleeing abroad.
Saudi Arabia and the United States welcomed the start of the "pre-negotiation talks" between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and urged both to actively engage and come to a ceasefire, a joint statement said.
Numerous truces have been violated since the conflict broke out in mid-April, and while Sudan's armed forces said it sent a delegation to the Red Sea city on Friday evening, the RSF did not immediately confirm its attendance.
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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.
Western powers have backed the transition to a civilian government in a country that sits at a strategic crossroads between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Africa's volatile Sahel region
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, and regional broadcasters said there was no exchange of gunfire in and around Khartoum in the early hours of Saturday.
But the warring sides have said they will only discuss a humanitarian truce and not an end to the fighting, which unlike previous conflicts has hit the capital hard rather than remote areas such as Darfur.
It erupted on April 15 between the army of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF of commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a former militia leader known as Hemedti, following the collapse of an internationally-backed plan for a transition with civilian parties.
Burhan, a career army officer, heads a ruling council installed after a 2021 military coup and the 2019 ouster of long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir, while Hemedti is his deputy.
Prior to the fighting, Hemedti had been taking steps like moving closer to a civilian party that suggest he has big political plans. Burhan has blamed the war on his "ambitions."
Burhan's special envoy, Dafallah Alhaj, said that the army will not sit down directly with any delegation the "rebellious" RSF might send.
Western powers have backed the transition to a civilian government in a country that sits at a strategic crossroads between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Africa's volatile Sahel region.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said he is travelling to Saudi Arabia on Saturday for talks with Saudi leaders.
Saudi Arabia has had close ties to Burhan and Hemedti, both of whom sent troops to help the Saudi-led coalition in its war against the Houthi group in Yemen. The kingdom is also focused on security in the Red Sea, which it shares with Sudan.
The UN has significantly cut back its operations in Sudan after three of its employees were killed and its warehouses were looted in the fighting, and sought guarantees of safe passage of humanitarian aid.
The fighting has impacted vital infrastructure and caused the closure of most hospitals in conflict areas. UN agencies have warned of a major humanitarian catastrophe if fighting continues.
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On Saturday, the World Health Organization said 30 tons 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 Britain, the United States, Germany and Norway is set to request a UN Human Rights Council meeting on Sudan next week, a document showed on Friday.