By Nafisa Eltahir and Khalid Abdelaziz
CAIRO/DUBAI (Reuters) – As many as 300,000 people have fled fighting on a new front in Sudan’s war, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Monday, as fighters from a paramilitary force battling the army for eight months advanced into the city of Wad Madani.
The takeover of Wad Madani, a city packed with displaced people and an aid hub during the current conflict, could be a turning point in the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces’ (RSF) advance through western and central regions of Sudan.
The city lies about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of the capital Khartoum in El Gezira state, an important agricultural region in a country facing worsening hunger. At least 250,000-300,000 people had fled El Gezira since the eruption of clashes four days ago, the IOM said in a statement.
The RSF and the army had shared power with civilians after the 2019 overthrow of former strongman Omar al-Bashir before staging a coup together in 2021 then coming to blows over an internationally backed political transition plan.
Videos posted by the RSF showed fighters in pick-up trucks driving along streets in Wad Madani and over a bridge across the Blue Nile that it had been fighting over with the army. Witnesses said they also raided nearby villages.
In one video, RSF fighters carrying rifles stood with their arms around Coptic priests, who said they had not been able to flee but asked the RSF for help leaving the city.
The videos were not verified by Reuters. There army did not comment.
Local pro-democracy activists said the RSF had set up checkpoints throughout the city and were looting homes and cars, with no army or police present.
The war between the army and the RSF has forced more than 7 million people to flee their homes, left the capital in ruins, caused a humanitarian crisis and triggered waves of ethnically driven killings in Darfur.
In Khartoum, the RSF has been accused of looting homes, raping women, and arbitrary killings and detentions.
While half a million people had sought refuge in the wider El Gezira state, at least 85,000 were living inside Wad Madani, with more relying on the city for healthcare, aid, and government services that began shutting down in recent days.
“Fleeing again will completely deplete our resources,” said Heba Abdelrahim, who had come to Wad Madani with her family from Khartoum. “Thinking logically we will wait until we don’t have any other choice.”
Several neighboring families had left together on a large truck, she said. Abdelrahim said gunshots could be heard while army warplanes were flying overhead, with air strikes heard before sundown.
The United States, which on Sunday urged the RSF not to attack Wad Madani, has with Saudi Arabia led mediation efforts to broker a ceasefire in Sudan, without visible progress. While regional mediators IGAD said the army and RSF agreed to a ceasefire last week, both sides quickly distanced themselves from the claim.
Taking control of central Wad Madani, a hub for national highways, would give the RSF greater control of trade and allow it to hobble army supply routes, said researcher Reem Abbas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute.
“This gives them time to organise themselves, and they can start going east … They will continue to hold people hostage, putting pressure on the communities, on the army, and the international community,” she said.
The RSF in a statement said it sought to oust Bashir loyalists in Wad Madani and pre-empt an attack by the army, which it accused of racial killings and indiscriminate air strikes.
Pro-democracy group Emergency Lawyers said the RSF on Monday killed two people when it raided Rufaa hospital north of Wad Madani.
Separately, the group criticised racially-motivated killings and torture in El Gezira state, and said at least 10 people had been killed by air strikes in RSF-controlled Nyala in recent days.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Christina Fincher, Angus MacSwan and Bill Berkrot)