Gunfire heard in Khartoum despite new ceasefire declarations

 Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces Gen  Abdel-Fattah Burhan speaks at an undisclosed location in his first speech since fighting in Sudan began nearly a week ago. [VOA]

Sounds of sporadic shelling could be heard into the night Friday in Sudan's capital, despite renewed cease-fire declarations from Sudan's military and a rival paramilitary force locked in heavy clashes for the past seven days.

Neither side had immediate comment on an offer from Kenyan President William Ruto to mediate the conflict, which has killed hundreds and prompted thousands of Khartoum residents to flee the city.

The Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces both announced they would honor a 72-hour cease-fire beginning Friday to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"The truce coincides with the blessed Eid al-Fitr ... to open humanitarian corridors to evacuate citizens and give them the opportunity to greet their families," the RSF said in a statement.

However, artillery fire was heard throughout the day and into the night in Khartoum, raising questions about whether the declared truce would fail, as have several others this week.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke to the heads of both military factions this week, urged the combatants to abide by the truce.

"I reiterate my call on both sides to pause the fighting to allow civilians to take care of themselves and their families, to permit full and unimpeded humanitarian access, and to enable all civilians, including diplomatic personnel, to reach safety," he said in a statement Friday.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that no decision had been made about whether to evacuate diplomatic personnel from Sudan, but that the United States was preparing for such action in case it becomes necessary.

He said American citizens in Sudan should not expect a U.S. government evacuation.

"If you are an American citizen, and you didn't take our warning to leave Sudan, and particularly Khartoum, you need to take care of your own safety and security, shelter in place" he told VOA.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon has deployed forces to the region in case a possible evacuation is needed but said no decision has been made yet.

"We've deployed some forces into theater to ensure that we provide as many options as possible if we are called on to do something. And we haven't been called on to do anything yet," Austin told reporters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

The Pentagon said U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Sudan’s army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on Friday to discuss the safety of Americans in Sudan.

The Associated Press reports that Milley also discussed the situation in Sudan while meeting with allies in Germany on Friday for talks primarily focusing on Ukraine. Milley and defense officials from Germany, Italy, Canada, and other countries discussed plans to coordinate any potential evacuation efforts in Sudan, according to the report.

The RSF announced Friday that it is ready to partially open all of Sudan's airports to allow countries to evacuate their nationals. However, it was not clear to what extent the paramilitary group controlled the country's airports.

Fighting has been reported this week at the Khartoum International Airport.

In a televised message to the nation Friday, Burhan made his first speech since the fighting began, saying he remained hopeful the military would win the battle, and vowed to secure what he called Sudan's "safe transition to civilian rule."

For many Sudanese, Burhan's claim likely rang hollow, as 18 months ago he joined forces with RSF leader Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo to seize power in a coup that ousted a pro-democracy transitional government.

In Kenya, Ruto made his offer to mediate the conflict as he conveyed a message of goodwill to the Sudanese at the end of Ramadan.

Murithi Mutiga, International Crisis Group's program director for Africa, said it was encouraging that neighbors, including Kenya, were eager to help resolve the Sudan crisis, but he was skeptical that Ruto or any one leader could do it alone.

"The reality, though, is that you need concerted actions by multiple external partners because nobody has really substantial leverage over the main actors," he said.

Ruto said he strongly believed that a peacefully negotiated solution to the conflict in Sudan was within reach. He expressed hope the fighting parties would respond to appeals to end the fighting put forth this week by the East African regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development bloc and the African Union.

However, major powers need to step in, Mutiga said.

"It's good to support the regional initiatives that might send the Kenyans, the Djiboutians and South Sudanese heads of state, but they need to be backed up by serious external pressure, particularly by two key players: Saudi Arabia and the U.S.," he said. "They have considerable access to the main actors. They might be able to move the needle, and they might be able to encourage them to accept talks."

Ruto said halting the fight would be a gesture of goodwill and stop a descent into conflict, insecurity, instability and humanitarian crisis.

Mutiga said the fact that the RSF's announcement of a cease-fire was seemingly met with no interest from the Sudanese army suggests the RSF might be under some sort of military pressure.

"But we have to remember that this is a very large force, very motivated force and one with a lot at stake," Mutiga said. "The armed forces seem determined to crush them militarily, but that is partly because they worry that a truce might allow the RSF to reinforce."

Regardless, Mutiga said, it is essential that the two parties move toward an agreement sooner rather than later because the suffering in Sudan has been horrific.

At least 413 people have been killed in the power struggle between the two previously allied leaders of the ruling military junta, Burhan and Dagalo, according to the World Health Organization.

The group said that thousands more have been injured in the fighting, and that as many as 20,000 people have fled Sudan to neighboring Chad.

At least five aid workers were among the dead, including three from the World Food Program, which suspended operations in Sudan. On Friday, an aid worker with the International Organization for Migration was killed in the city of El Obeid, according to Reuters. The worker was driving his family to safety when his vehicle was caught in the crossfire.

Alyona Synenko, the East Africa regional spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, called the latest aid worker's death "extremely disturbing news and very concerning and saddening for the humanitarian community."

She told VOA a general state of lawlessness is increasing in Sudan.