NAIROBI, Kenya — Fighting raged on Saturday across the capital of Sudan and in a handful of other cities as months of rising tensions between rival factions of the armed forces suddenly spiraled into an all-out battle for control of one of Africa’s biggest countries.
Clashes at a military base in the capital, Khartoum, quickly spread to the presidential palace, the international airport and the headquarters of the state broadcaster. Residents cowered in their homes as explosions rang out and warplanes screeched over rooftops. An internal U.N. report cited about 27 dead and 400 injured.
By Saturday night, it was unclear who was in control of Sudan, a sprawling and strategically important country just south of Egypt.
The chaos was an alarming turn for a nation that only four years ago was an inspiration to both Africa and the Arab world. Jubilant protesters, symbolized in part by a young woman in a white robe, toppled their widely detested ruler of three decades, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, ushering in hopes for democracy and an end to the country’s grinding isolation.
The revolution faltered 18 months ago when Sudan’s two most powerful generals, who are now fighting each other, united to seize power in a coup. But pro-democracy protesters refused to back down, continuing to lose their lives in demonstrations, and the fate of Sudan remained a preoccupation of Western countries, notably the United States.
In part, that’s because Sudan has become a flashpoint in the wider global rivalry between the West and Russia.
The Kremlin-backed private military company Wagner has deployed mercenaries to Sudan and runs a major gold mining concession, while Russia’s government has pressed Sudan to allow Russian warships to dock at its Red Sea ports.
Sudan’s military, which has struggled to rule effectively, was supposed to hand back power to civilian leaders this month, as part of a Western-backed deal. But any hopes for a peaceful transition were shattered early Saturday when strained relations between the most powerful military leaders — the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, the commander of the powerful Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries — turned violent.
As fighting spread through Khartoum, videos circulating on social media showed soldiers firing in the streets, armored vehicles speeding through residential areas and travelers taking shelter on the floor of the airport amid reports of gunfire outside the terminal.
Western officials said that Sudanese military warplanes, pictured flying low over the city, had attacked Rapid Support Forces camps at several locations around the city.
Saudia Airlines said in a statement that one of its planes was damaged on the runway at the airport. One person posted a video, shot inside an airplane, saying that two people had been killed in the seats behind him. It was unclear if the two incidents were linked.
By Saturday night, both sides accused the other of starting the fighting, and made conflicting claims about who controlled key positions like the presidential palace and the airport.
Western and United Nations officials reported clashes in at least six cities outside the capital. Many were in the western Darfur region, a theater of brutal civil conflict for much of the past two decades.
There are fears the conflict could draw in Sudan’s neighbors. Chad, which shares a 600-mile border with Sudan, much of it abutting Darfur, said it was closing its border until further notice.
Egypt has openly sided with Sudan’s military as tensions have risen. General Hamdan’s forces posted a video on Saturday from a military base in Meroe, 125 miles north of Khartoum, showing recently captured Egyptian soldiers.
In a statement, Egypt’s military confirmed it had troops in Sudan, and said it was coordinating with Sudanese authorities to ensure their welfare.
With the internet and television services still operating, the warring military generals issued verbal salvos as their troops clashed on the ground. “We are sorry to be fighting our countrymen, but this criminal is the one who forced us to do it,” General Hamdan told Al Jazeera in an interview in which he called General al-Burhan a liar and a “thief.”
“We will capture Burhan and bring him to justice, or he dies like any dog,” he added.
An army spokesman called General Hamdan, who until Saturday morning was formally the deputy leader of Sudan, a “rebel.” Later, on its Facebook page, the army said there would be “no negotiations or dialogue” until the Rapid Support Forces had been disbanded.
The chaotic scenes in the capital, many unfolding outside the windows of terrified residents filming with their cellphones, were alarming even in a country with a long record of military takeovers. Although Sudan has experienced more coups than any other African country, none has involved such intensive combat between rival wings of the armed forces in the center of the capital.
Although it was too early to say if the country was tumbling into a civil war, several people reached by phone said it felt like that.
“I am not surprised at all,” said Galal Yousif, an artist in Khartoum. “Unfortunately, on the one side is a militia, and on the other is a general who has turned the army into a militia to help him stay in power.”
The latest clashes, he said, undermined the efforts of all of the Sudanese people who went into the streets to fight for democracy during the 2019 popular uprising. “It is like it happened for nothing,” he said.
The mayhem was also a major blow to the diplomatic efforts of American, United Nations, African Union and Arab officials who had been scrambling to stave off possible clashes.
The United States secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, said on Twitter that he was “deeply concerned” by the clashes in Sudan. He urged the warring generals to “continue talks to resolve outstanding issues.”
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which also wield influence in Sudan, joined the public calls for de-escalation. The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles, said the protection of civilians should be a priority.
The confrontation caused alarm in Moscow, where the Russian Foreign Ministry urged “restraint and urgent steps toward a cease-fire.”
This was supposed to be the week when Sudan’s warring generals would surrender power, not battle over it.
Under the Western-backed deal signed in December, General al-Burhan and General Hamdan had agreed to return power to a civilian-led government, effectively reversing the 2021 coup.
But any handover required agreement on how quickly they would merge their forces — a source of burning, apparently insurmountable, disagreement. Diplomats involved in the talks said some senior officers wanted a unified army in two years. General Hamdan insisted it would take at least 10 years.
As night fell on Saturday, reports that fighting had spread to military bases in the Darfur region stoked worries that some of the region’s numerous heavily-armed rebel groups could get sucked into the fighting.
Other Sudanese directed their frustration at U.N. officials and foreign diplomats they accused of promoting an unviable political deal while failing to defuse the most pressing problem: explosive intra-military tensions.
“The political process did not address the most dangerous issue,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, a former senior adviser to Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister who was ousted in 2021. “There was an assumption that by ignoring it, it would solve itself. That was nonsense.”
Mr. al-Bashir, the former dictator ousted in 2019, has been incarcerated at Khartoum’s Kober prison for most of the past four years. But the continuing turmoil is seen by many as a byproduct of his three decades of rule.
When in power, Mr. al-Bashir oversaw a brutal campaign of genocidal, state-sponsored violence in Darfur that caused the International Criminal Court to indict him for war crimes, and which paved the way for the rise of General Hamdan, widely known as Hemeti.
Of humble origins, General Hamdan first came to prominence as a commander of the notorious janjaweed and militias responsible for the worst atrocities of that conflict. His success in crushing the revolt earned him the favor of Mr. al-Bashir, who in 2013 appointed him as head of the newly created Rapid Support Forces.
Since then, General Hamdan has become influential and wealthy, with a business empire that includes extensive gold mining interests. But more recently he has promoted himself as a reborn democrat — and a possible future leader of Sudan.
In recent months, he forged an unlikely alliance with a coalition of civilian political parties, including groups that once came under attack by his troops. But at the same time, his war of words with General al-Burhan, his putative boss and the army commander, grew steadily more intense.
The two generals began to criticize one another publicly, while moving more troops into rival camps across Khartoum. Speaking to The New York Times last month, Abdul Rahim Dagalo, the deputy commander of the Rapid Support Forces, and General Hamdan’s close brother, accused the army chief of building a wall around his headquarters to isolate him from the country.
“He doesn’t care what happens outside the wall,” Mr. Dagalo said at his Khartoum villa. “He doesn’t care if the rest of the country burns.”
Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi, Anushka Patil from New York, Euan Ward from London and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels.