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KHARTOUM: Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) said they had taken control of the presidential palace, the residence of the army chief and Khartoum international airport on Saturday as clashes erupted with the army in an escalating power struggle.

In a statement, the RSF also said they had taken over the airports in the northern city of Merowe and El-Obeid in the west.

Gunfire could be heard in several parts of Khartoum and eyewitnesses reporting shooting in adjoining cities.

A Reuters journalist saw cannon and armoured vehicles deployed in streets, and heard the sound of heavy weapons fire near the headquarters of both the army and RSF.

The army said the RSF had tried to attack its troops in several positions after witnesses reported heavy gunfire in multiple parts of the country, raising fears of a full-blown conflict.

The RSF said its forces were attacked by the army.

A prolonged confrontation between the RSF and the army could spell prolonged strife across a vast country already dealing with economic breakdown and flare-ups of tribal violence.

Earlier, the RSF, headed by former militia leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, said the army had surrounded one of its bases and opened fire with heavy weapons.

The violence followed days of tension between the army and the RSF, a powerful paramilitary group. This had sparked concern about a confrontation that would undermine long-running efforts to return Sudan to civilian rule after power struggles and military coups.

Hemedti had put himself at the forefront of a planned transition toward democracy, unsettling fellow military rulers and triggering a mobilisation of troops in the capital Khartoum.

The rift between the forces came to the surface on Thursday, when the army said that recent movements, particularly in Merowe, by the RSF had taken place without coordination and were illegal.

The RSF said in a statement actions by the leadership of the armed forces and “some officers” were an attack on its forces and were intended to create instability.

On Saturday there was a heavy exchange of gunfire in Merowe, eyewitnesses told Reuters.

A statement by the RSF on Saturday called the army’s actions a “brute assault” which should be condemned. It said the RSF had informed local and international mediators of developments.

The RSF, which together with the army overthrew long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir in 2019, began redeploying units in Khartoum and elsewhere amid talks last month on its integration into the military under a transition plan that would lead to new elections.

Hemedti, a former widely feared militia commander in Darfur, has been deputy leader of the ruling Sovereign Council headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan since 2019.

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