Jason Burke and Zeinab Mohammed Salih
As Khalifa Haftar’s influence emerges, analysts warn the area could be a battleground for multiple players.
The Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar helped to prepare the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia now fighting for control of Sudan, for battle in the months before the devastating violence that broke out on 15 April, the Observer has been told by former officials, militia commanders and sources in Sudan and the UK.
The involvement of Haftar, who runs much of the eastern part of Libya, will raise fears of a long-drawn-out conflict in Sudan fuelled by outside interests. Analysts have described a “nightmare scenario” of multiple regional actors and powers fighting a proxy war in the country of more than 45 million people.
A new effort to impose a ceasefire on warring factions in Sudan appeared to be failing on Saturday, with continued fighting, airstrikes and bombardment in Khartoum, the capital. There were also renewed clashes in the Darfur region, in the south-west. More than 400 people are known to have died in the conflict so far, though the true toll is believed to be much higher.
The conflict has pitted army units loyal to Sudan’s military ruler, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, against the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who is the deputy head of the ruling council. Both believe they can seize unchallenged control of Sudan’s resources and its crumbling, but still powerful, state. Neither appears inclined to compromise, analysts say.
Local NGOs are warning staff to brace for a rise in violence now that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is over. The sources told the Observer that Haftar had passed on crucial intelligence to Hemedti, detained his enemies, increased deliveries of fuel and possibly trained a detachment of hundreds of fighters from the RSF in urban warfare between February and mid-April.
Haftar’s connection with Hemedti goes back to well before the fall of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s veteran authoritarian ruler, after months of popular protests in 2019. However, the relationship has grown warmer in recent years, with Hemedti sending mercenaries to Libya to fight alongside Haftar’s military force, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), the sources said.
Hemedti and Haftar have also collaborated on a range of highly profitable smuggling operations, with middle-ranking commanders in both their militias forging close links as they manage the transit of valuable illicit cargos between the two countries, experts told the Observer.
Sudan and Libya sit astride major routes for human trafficking, narcotics and much else. In recent weeks, as conflict between the RSF and Burhan’s forces loomed, Haftar made efforts to support Hemedti, the sources said.
These have been carefully calibrated, however, as neither Haftar nor his international sponsors, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, want to commit entirely to one side in a conflict whose likely outcome remains unclear. Haftar must also be careful not to alienate supporters in Egypt who are backing Burhan. One militia commander within the LNA said his force was “ready to support [Hemedti] … but we are still monitoring the unfolding situation in Sudan”.
Only days before the conflict erupted, Haftar ordered the arrest of a deputy of Musa Hilal, a Sudanese militia commander who is a bitter enemy of Hemedti.
Hilal’s forces were responsible for inflicting heavy losses on Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group – another ally of Haftar – in the neighbouring Central African Republic in an ambush near the Sudanese border earlier this year.
In a further display of support, one of Haftar’s sons flew into Khartoum to donate $2m to Al-Merrikh Club, one of two big football teams in Sudan which is struggling financially. The club is associated with Hemedti, who has helped to repair its stadium. After announcing the gift, Sadeeq Haftar was hosted by Hemedti.
During the visit, Hemedti received a warning from Haftar that his rivals in Sudan were preparing to move against him, intelligence sources close to the LNA told the Observer. A day after Haftar’s son had left Sudan, Hemedti moved forces to take control of the international airport at Merowe, a strategically sited town 300km north of Khartoum, and began positioning fighters to seize key locations in the capital, the sources said.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Haftar had sent at least one shipment of arms to Hemedti, a claim denied by the LNA, while CNN described flights from LNA-run airbases organised by the Wagner group, which has a presence in both Libya and Sudan.
Russia has built close ties with both Haftar and Hemedti, but Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, denied the report.
There are, however, reports from witnesses on the ground of planes landing at Al-Jawf airport in Kufra, in southern Libya, carrying weapons that then were sent on convoys of trucks towards Sudan.
Haftar is a polarising figure, whose enemies accuse him of war crimes during Libya’s 2014-20 civil war. In 2019, a UN report said that a thousand Sudanese troops from the RSF had been deployed to Libya by Hemedti to help the LNA in its battle with the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.
Former and current Libyan officials told the Observer that in recent months Haftar had trained hundreds of RSF fighters, who lack experience of urban warfare, in techniques and tactics they would need in a potential battle for Khartoum and other cities.
Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said support from Haftar and his sponsors would be carefully judged. “They want [Hemedti] to survive, at least … Fuel makes more sense than weapons or ammunition and is the surest thing [Hemedti] could get from Libyan friends,” Harchaoui said.
The fuel shipments are being delivered by truck from the Mediterranean port of Benghazi, the sources said, although others suggested a likely additional origin might be the more southerly Sarir refinery, which has recently been requisitioned by the LNA. Hemedti’s forces are short of fuel because supplies to their main bases in Darfur have been cut by Burhan’s supporters in Khartoum, who still control much of the oil and petrol infrastructure in Sudan.
Most of the Sudanese mercenaries fighting for the LNA are former rivals of Hemedti and this, too, could impose limits on aid offered by Haftar, experts said.