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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

Fighting between Sudan’s military and a notorious paramilitary group forced up to 300,000 people to flee their homes in a province that had been a safe haven for families displaced by the devastating conflict in the northeastern African country, the U.N. said Thursday.

The fighting erupted in the city of Wad Medani, the provincial capital of Jazeera province, after the Rapid Support Forces attacked the city earlier this month. The RSF said that it took over Wad Medani earlier this week, and the military said that its troops withdrew from the city, and an investigation was opened.

Sudan’s war began in mid-April after months of tensions between military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan and RSF commander Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. Both generals led a military coup in October 2021 that derailed Sudan’s short-lived transition to democracy following a popular uprising that forced the removal of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019.

The U.N. agency International Organization for Migration said that between 250,000 and 300,000 people fled the province – many reportedly on foot – to safer areas in the provinces of al-Qadarif, Sinnar and the White Nile. Some sheltered in camps for displaced people and many sought shelter in local communities, it said.

Jazeera, Sudan’s breadbasket, was home to about 6 million Sudanese. Since the war, about 500,000 displaced fled to the province, mostly from the capital, Khartoum, which has been the center of fighting, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Medani, which is about 100 kilometres (60 miles) southeast of Khartoum, had hosted more than 86,000 of the displaced, OCHA said.

The World Food Program announced Wednesday that it has temporarily halted food assistance in some parts of Jazeera, in what it described a “major setback” to humanitarian efforts in the province.

The U.N. food agency said that it had provided assistance to 800,000 people in the province, including many families that fled the fighting in Khartoum.

The conflict in Sudan has wrecked the country and killed up to 9,000 people as of October, according to the United Nations. However, activists and doctors’ groups say the real toll is far higher.

Catherine Russel, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, warned Thursday that the escalation could leave “children and families trapped between fighting lines or caught in the crossfire, with fatal consequences.”

She said that families had already experienced “harrowing journeys” to reach safety early in the war. “Now, even that fragile sense of security is shattered as those same children have once again been forced from their homes,” she added.

More than 7 million people were forced out of their homes, including more than 1.5 million who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, according to the U.N. figures. Chad received more than 500,000 refugees, mostly from Sudan’s western region of Darfur, where the RSF conquered much of its areas.

The fighting in Wad Medani forced many aid groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, to evacuate its staff from the city, which was a center of the humanitarian operations in the country.

The RSF takeover prompted fears among Wad Medani residents that they would carry out atrocities in their city as they did in the capital, Khartoum, and Darfur. The U.N. and rights groups have accused the RSF of atrocities in Darfur, which was the scene of a genocidal campaign in the early 2000s.

The RSF grew out of the state-backed Arab militias known as Janjaweed, which were accused of widespread killings, rapes and other atrocities in the Darfur conflict.

Ahmed Tag el-Sir, a father of three, fled along with his family to the neighbouring province of al-Qadarif after the RSF rampaged through their village of al-Sharfa Barakar north of Wad Medani.

“They shelled the village and took over residents’ homes, like they did in Darfur,” the man said from a relative’s house where he shelters along with two other families. “We fled out of fear of being killed or our women being raped by the Janjaweed.”

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