Who Are Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces?

The Sudanese Army and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces were once aligned. The R.S.F. fought on behalf of the Sudanese Army, until its outgrown influence and the ambitions of its leader, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, put the two groups in direct confrontation.

The Rapid Support Forces can trace its origins to the notorious Janjaweed militias, which in the 2000s helped Sudan’s Army crush a rebellion in the western region of Darfur. While the military had an air force and heavy weapons, the Janjaweed provided on-the-ground fighters in isolated areas.

An estimated 300,000 people were killed in the conflict between 2003 and 2008, and 2.5 million more were displaced, according to the United Nations. The International Criminal Court opened investigations into the genocidal violence, indicting Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2009.

Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, mostly known as Hemeti, is a former Janjaweed leader who was once backed by Mr. al-Bashir, but who eventually helped oust him following a popular uprising in 2019.

In 2021, General Hamdan and the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, staged another coup, and, until Saturday, the two had been sharing power.

As General Hamdan’s influence grew, along with his aspirations to lead the country, the two generals became enemies. The military had pushed to integrate the R.S.F. into its ranks, but the paramilitary group resisted.

Experts and Western officials estimate the R.S.F. to number between 70,000 and 150,000 fighters. Its members include former military and intelligence officers, according to Roland Marchal, a sociologist at Sciences Po University in Paris and an expert on civil wars in Africa.

In recent months, General Hamdan has recruited more fighters from the country’s east and north in an attempt to widen his support base, according to Mr. Marchal.

He has also deepened his connection to foreign powers, visiting Russia at the beginning of the war on Ukraine, partnering with the Wagner mercenary group to dig for gold in Sudan, and deploying troops in Yemen, to serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, and in Libya, for the United Arab Emirates.

Still, the R.S.F. lacks the firepower of the military. The group doesn’t have planes, for instance. And while R.S.F. fighters are used to operating in rural areas, they are not as well-trained for combat in cities like Khartoum, according to Mr. Marchal.

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