KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan must at all costs avoid tensions between a powerful paramilitary unit that controls Khartoum and the regular army or risk more instability following a military coup in April, leading opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi said.
An influential former prime minister, Mahdi called on high-profile military leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, to fully integrate the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which he commands with the regular army to promote unity within the armed forces.
“The fact that there are tensions between our armed groups must be resolved peacefully,” Mahdi, Sudan’s last democratically elected premier, told Reuters in an interview.
“Either people fight it out, which would be very bad for Sudan, or they accept a reconciliation process,” said Mahdi, who heads the largest opposition party.
“All our political forces are going to have their minds concentrated on the need to avoid this civil war and all types of conflicts that are potentially there.”
Speaking at his sprawling villa surrounded by gardens in the capital, Mahdi said the opposition had floated the idea of merging the forces to the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which has been in charge since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was overthrown following protests triggered by an economic crisis.
There are no signs that a conflict is looming between the RSF and the military. And there are no apparent divisions between Hemedti, deputy head of the TMC, and its leader Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
But Mahdi, himself toppled by Bashir in 1989, said Sudan can’t afford to take any chances during a turbulent period.
“All our minds will be concentrated on avoiding this catastrophic development which is very much on the horizon.” The military has more firepower but taking on the RSF in the capital would inflict mass civilian casualties, say politicians, analysts and opposition figures.
Bashir is being held along with other former officials at Khartoum’s Kobar prison.
Mahdi’s moderate Islamic Umma party is among opposition groups who have been pressing for a transition to civilian rule in talks with the TMC that ground to a halt last month.
The RSF was not immediately available for comment.
Hemedti has indicated he has political ambitions, delivering frequent public speeches, and promising a brighter future for Sudanese, from the same palace occupied by Bashir.
“If he looks ahead to a leadership role it will be acceptable if he becomes a civilian citizen, and if he then either forms his own party or joins whatever party he thinks is closer to his ideas,” said Mahdi.
Unlike many army officers, Hemedti was not educated at military colleges. His meteoric rise under Bashir caused resentment. RSF fighters lack discipline, according to analysts and security officials, but are often paid better than soldiers.
The RSF began as a militia after a war erupted with rebels in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003. The force eventually fell under the army’s supervision but only at times of conflicts.
Huge crowds marched on Sudan’s defence ministry on Sunday to pressure the TMC, and authorities said at least seven people were killed and scores wounded in protests nationwide in the biggest demonstrations since a deadly raid by security forces on a protest camp in central Khartoum three weeks ago.
Hemedti said unknown snipers were shooting at civilians and soldiers in Sunday’s incident.
Bashir recruited Hemedti from Darfur, where his militia — which later evolved into the RSF — was accused by human rights groups of atrocities against civilians in a war against rebels.
The government denied the allegations.
Bashir used Hemedti and his men, now deployed across Khartoum armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns mounted on vehicles, to counter perceived threats from rivals under a strategy that helped him stay in power for 30 years.
“We believe he (Hemedti) must accept now that this (integration of the RSF and army) should be developed. His force will be part and parcel of a national defence force,” said Mahdi. This should be done “in a way that will be voluntary with the armed forces.”
Mahdi said chances of reconciliation could be improved by an independent investigation of violence three weeks ago in which witnesses said the RSF led a raid on a protest camp. Opposition medics reported more than 100 people killed. The government put the death toll at 61, including three security personnel.
Editing by William Maclean