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Displaced people fleeing from Wad Madani in Sudan's Jazira state arrive in Gedaref in the country's east on Dec. 17.-/Getty Images

Just days after their latest ceasefire promises, Sudan’s warring factions have fallen into fierce combat again, this time in a previously safe city that had become a sanctuary for tens of thousands of Sudanese who had fled earlier fighting in the devastated country.

The battle for the city of Wad Madani, capital of Gezira state, has opened a new front in the eight-month-old conflict between Sudan’s military and a rebellious paramilitary faction, the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF.

More than half a million people had taken shelter in Gezira state in recent months after fleeing their homes in Khartoum when the fighting erupted in April. Thousands are now on the move again, many in a panic, throwing the roads into chaos as they move southward or northward in a new escape bid.

The RSF assault on Wad Madani was followed by reports of RSF military movements in two other key places: the Darfur city of El Fasher, the last major city in Darfur that the paramilitary group does not control, and the eastern city of Kosti in White Nile state. Both cities had been relatively stable and are sheltering large numbers of displaced people.

The multipronged RSF offensive is a sign that the paramilitary group is seeking total control of Sudan, rather than settling for a split of the country. Some analysts had speculated that Sudan could replicate the example of Libya, divided between two major political factions. But now it appears the RSF has calculated that it can capture the entire country.

Last week, African mediators said the two warring parties had agreed to a ceasefire proposal. The deal was announced by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a bloc of eight countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. But instead the agreement seems to have become the latest in a long series of broken ceasefires since the war began.

At least 12,500 people have been killed in the Sudan war, according to United Nations reports, although this is believed to be a substantial undercount of the true death toll. Nearly seven million Sudanese have fled their homes, including 1½ million who have crossed to neighbouring states, making it one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than half of Sudan’s population is in need of humanitarian aid, and nearly 18 million face acute hunger, the UN says.

The latest fighting began on Friday when the RSF advanced on Wad Madani and reached the city’s outskirts. The Sudanese military fought back with helicopter airstrikes.

Within a day, about 15,000 people had fled the city, while RSF looting of markets and banks was reported, and hospitals began closing. The route from Wad Madani to the city of Sennar, normally a one-hour drive to the south, was taking more than 10 hours because the roads were crowded with people leaving the city, according to reports on social media.

“Panic is reportedly growing among the civilians in the town and people have been seen leaving by vehicle and on foot,” the UN office for humanitarian affairs said in an update on the weekend. “The situation remains tense and unpredictable.”

Wad Madani is considered a vital hub for humanitarian operations in Sudan, and Gezira state is considered a breadbasket for the country. But since the latest fighting began, humanitarian operations have been scaled back or suspended, and staff have been relocated to neighbouring states, the UN says.

Access to basic necessities such as food and health care has been severely disrupted, worsening the “already dire” humanitarian situation in the city, according to the International Rescue Committee, one of the relief agencies that was forced to relocate its staff from the city.

By Sunday night, after a series of clashes and artillery exchanges around the city, Sudanese soldiers appeared to have beaten back the initial RSF advance. Videos on social media showed people celebrating the retreat of the paramilitary group.

But RSF forces remained around the outskirts of the city, and an RSF statement on Sunday said the militia “remain resolute” and ready to “directly confront” the Sudanese army in Gezira. It said the army had mobilized 40,000 troops in Wad Madani to fight the RSF.

Western governments said they were alarmed. “A continued RSF advance risks mass civilian casualties and significant disruption of humanitarian assistance efforts,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on the weekend.

“The RSF advance has already caused large-scale displacements of vulnerable civilians from Gezira state – many of whom have nowhere else to go – and closure of markets in Wad Madani on which many people rely.”

William Carter, country director in Sudan for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said a “continuous flow of people” from the city are rushing toward neighbouring states that are already heavily burdened.

“We are also extremely worried for highly vulnerable families in Wad Madani who have been crammed into displacement sites in schools for months and have nowhere to hide from violence, no means to escape and nowhere else to flee,” Mr. Carter said in a statement on Sunday.

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