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Children cross the border on their donkeys from Sudan to Chad, in Chad, Nov. 7, 2023.EL TAYEB SIDDIG/Reuters

Dozens of civilians, possibly hundreds, have been massacred in a town in Darfur as paramilitary forces sweep across the war-ravaged region of western Sudan, with further atrocities widely feared in the coming days, Sudanese media and rights activists say.

Photos on social media showed bodies strewn across the streets of Ardamata, a camp for displaced people in West Darfur, while videos showed scenes of dozens of other civilians being rounded up, whipped and beaten, and led away to unknown locations. A senior United Nations official said the reports were “sickening.”

The Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group with strong backing from the United Arab Emirates, has been waging war against Sudan’s military since their alliance shattered in April. In recent weeks, the RSF has captured town after town in Darfur, with killings reported after every conquest.

One human-rights group, Darfur Victims Support, said the RSF had killed dozens of civilians in Ardamata this week after Sudan’s military abandoned an army garrison site nearby. But other estimates were much higher.

A Sudanese media outlet, Radio Dabanga, quoted a witness saying that the RSF had raided the town, separated the men from the women, and killed more than 200 men. Other reports from Sudanese journalists and Darfuri activists said the number of deaths may have reached 700 or 800.

The massacre is the latest chapter in an unfolding catastrophe across Sudan. Nearly six million people have been displaced by the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese army since April, making it one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, the UN says. At least 10,000 people have died in the fighting, according to independent estimates, but analysts say the death toll is likely to be far higher.

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said this week that Sudan is the world’s biggest child displacement crisis, with three million children forced from their homes and 19 million unable to attend school because of the war.

In July, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said his office had begun investigating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, after the surge of killings and mass rapes in the region since the fighting began in April.

In the Ardamata massacre, the victims were reported to be Masalit people, an African ethnic group that has often been targeted by the RSF. It has allied with local Arab militias in Darfur that have long been rivals of minorities such as the Masalit.

One of the victims of the RSF massacre, according to a Radio Dabanga report, was a local Masalit leader, Mohamed Arbab, along with his son and eight of his grandchildren.

Toby Harward, a senior UN humanitarian official in Sudan, said there were “sickening reports and images” from Ardamata. In a social media post on Tuesday, he cited reports of “assassinations, grave violations and massacres of civilians, following RSF takeover of area.”

Tens of thousands of Masalit refugees have fled to neighbouring Chad since the RSF attacks began. Eric Reeves, a Sudan expert at the Africa-based Rift Valley Institute, said he estimates that about 10,000 Masalit people have been killed by the RSF in attacks this year.

The latest massacre site, Ardamata, is close to West Darfur’s capital, El Geneina. Three of Darfur’s regional capitals – El Geneina, Nyala and Zalingei – have fallen to the RSF offensive in recent weeks. Fears are growing that the RSF will soon capture the last remaining capital, El Fasher, which it is already besieging, potentially triggering more atrocities.

In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “deeply troubled” by reports that the RSF would soon launch a large-scale attack on El Fasher. This would mean “extreme danger” for hundreds of thousands of displaced people, including many who only recently fled to El Fasher for safety, he said.

He cited reports of earlier RSF atrocities in Nyala. “We condemn reported abuses by the RSF and allied forces in connection with their assault on Nyala, including civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests, detention of medical personnel and looting of health facilities.”

The two warring sides have been engaged in talks in Saudi Arabia for weeks, but they failed to produce any agreement on a ceasefire, according to an announcement on Tuesday by the main mediators, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The mediators said the two sides had agreed to take steps to remove obstacles for humanitarian aid in Sudan, but similar pledges in the past have not been fulfilled. Nicholas Coghlan, a former Canadian ambassador to the country, said the progress in the talks was “extremely limited” and the humanitarian agreement could allow the two sides to manipulate the supply of aid for their own benefit.

As the fighting in Darfur continues, the flow of refugees to Chad is increasing. In the first three days of November, about 7,000 people crossed the border, more than during the entire previous month, and many had been wounded in attacks, according to the humanitarian agency Médecins sans frontières.

At the MSF hospital in eastern Chad, a 27-year-old man arrived from Darfur with multiple bullet wounds on his hands and legs. He had been in a group of 17 people, but attackers had killed everyone except him. “He survived by playing dead,” MSF said in a report this week.

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