US official says threat of 'large-scale massacre' in Sudan's Darfur is imminent


A woman holds her baby at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan. [Reuters]

A senior U.S. official warned Monday that more than 2 million people in El Fasher, in Sudan’s western Darfur region, are under imminent threat of a “large-scale massacre” from a paramilitary group’s attack and urged the international community to pressure the warring parties to de-escalate.

“There are already credible reports that the RSF and its allied militias have razed multiple villages west of El Fasher,” U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters at the United Nations. “And as we speak, the RSF is planning an imminent attack on El Fasher.”

The RSF is the Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group that is made up of elements of the Janjaweed fighters who carried out a genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s.

The head of the RSF has been locked in an armed power struggle with the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces for just over a year. The fighting has spread from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to other parts of the country, and now looks ready to engulf North Darfur and the civilians trapped there.

The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to discuss the situation Monday and was briefed by U.N. political and humanitarian officials.

“A crisis of epic proportions is brewing, and to avoid further death, destruction and suffering, five things need to happen, immediately,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “First, the RSF must end its siege and buildup of military forces in El Fasher and swear off any attack on the city. All parties to the conflict must take urgent steps to de-escalate.”

She also called for protection of civilians and respect for international law; for external actors to stop providing the combatants with weapons; and for safe and unimpeded aid access. She also demanded the parties return to the negotiating table.

"Because this conflict will not be solved on the battlefield, it will be solved at the negotiating table," Thomas-Greenfield said.

“The last thing that Sudan needs is a further escalation on top of this conflict that's been going on for a whole year,” British Deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki told reporters after the meeting. “The council is concerned about the humanitarian crisis — about the scale of the famine risk — and it is concerned about the displacement of people.”

In a statement Saturday, the 15-members of the U.N. Security Council repeated their call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, leading to a sustainable cease-fire. They also reminded countries of their obligations to comply with a U.N. arms embargo on Sudan.

Alarm bells

The U.N. began raising the alarm on the situation in El Fasher earlier this month, warning that fighting there could “unleash bloody intercommunal strife throughout Darfur."

El Fasher is also a long-established humanitarian hub, and fighting there would further complicate aid deliveries.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Monday that the security situation has already effectively cut off humanitarian access to El Fasher.

In a statement, OCHA said more than a dozen aid trucks with supplies for 122,000 people are stranded in neighboring Northern State. The trucks cannot continue to El Fasher because of the insecurity and lack of guarantees for safe passage.

The U.N. says 330,000 people are dealing with acute food insecurity in El Fasher — many of them displaced persons who moved there seeking safety. The World Food Program reached 40,000 of them in the past month.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ office said his special envoy for Sudan, Ramtane Lamamra, is engaging with the parties to try to de-escalate tensions in El Fasher.

Analysts at the Yale University Humanitarian Research Lab have also been tracking the situation and warned in a report on April 19 that the RSF likely already control the north, east and west roads into the city and have essentially trapped the Sudanese Armed Forces in El Fasher with no resupply or escape route.

That means civilians are also trapped, including tens of thousands of African Zaghawa, Masalit, Fur and other non-Arab ethnic groups, whose communities were victims of the genocide two decades ago.

The United Nations has called on the parties to allow civilians safe passage out of the city.

Since the war began last April, more than 8 million people have been forced from their homes in search of safety. Nearly 2 million of them have fled Sudan to neighboring countries. Of those who remain, 18 million are facing acute hunger, with 5 million a step away from famine.