Increasing number of villages torched across Sudan shows conflict is intensifying – report

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The number of villages in Sudan that have been destroyed or severely damaged by fire has risen sharply in recent weeks, suggesting the country’s conflict is intensifying as it enters its second year.

Satellite data revealed the number of Sudanese settlements set on fire in March increased to 30, the highest monthly total recorded since fighting broke out between the country’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) last April.

The analysis by the London-based Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) corroborates growing concern that Sudan’s civil war is steadily intensifying, with 22 villages destroyed or damaged by fire in February and 10 destroyed in both January and December.

Anouk Theunissen, CIR’s team leader of Sudan investigators, said the data charted a “worrying development” in the course of the brutal war between Sudan’s two rival military factions.

Most of the recently fire-damaged villages were in Darfur, the sprawling region in west Sudan where 17 were targeted last month.

Among them was El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur and the scene of escalating fighting as the RSF attempts to seize the city.

Over the weekend, reports suggested 40,000 people in El Fasher had fled their homes after the RSF and allied militias raided villages on the western outskirts of the city, killing at least 11. The RSF has been accused of ethnic cleansing, as well as rape and looting, in rampages against Masalit people across Darfur.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have sought refuge around El Fasher, prompting the UN secretary general, António Guterres, to warn on Monday of the grave humanitarian consequences if conditions deteriorate further.

CIR, a research body partly funded by the British government, used Nasa heat-recognition technology to identify fires and satellite images to detect smoke and burnt-out buildings. These were then matched with images from social media that had been geolocated using maps and photos.

Video still showing armed men in a truck with a variation of the RSF emblem on the windscreen.View image in fullscreen

Analysts at CIR said airstrikes by the Sudanese military were a likely driver behind the uptick in fires, as it targets areas seized by the RSF.

“In the past few months, we’ve seen a rise in online reports of airstrikes on villages,” said Theunissen. “While we have been unable to verify these attacks, we’ve confirmed fires coinciding with these reports of airstrikes, and damage to houses and buildings consistent with airdropped munitions.”

The number of “fire events” – significant separate blazes in a single location – has also increased sharply.

March was the highest monthly total since last May, when 39 fire events were recorded and when the conflict in Sudan widened significantly – the RSF set fire to several villages in Darfur, including razing the town of Misterei, home to thousands of Masalit people.

Theunissen said: “Since the conflict broke out last April, fire appears to have become a weapon of war, leading to mass displacement. We’ve seen over one hundred villages damaged or destroyed by fire, some on more than one occasion.”

One settlement recently damaged by fire – likely to be from an airstrike by the Sudanese military – was East Darfur’s state capital, El Daein.

CIR-verified footage from the night of 20 February 2024 shows fires at three different locations, with images the next morning indicating shrapnel impact and charred bodies. The Guardian previously reported that the military targeted El Daein on 20 February.

Among the latest CIR-verified fires were blazes in West Kordofan – a state bordering East Darfur – where five villages were set on fire during the last few days of the month.

The fires are just one facet of a grinding war that has forced more than 8 million people to flee their homes – the biggest displacement crisis globally – and millions more on the verge of famine.

On Monday, in an effort to counter a desperate shortfall in humanitarian aid for the country, international donors pledged more than €2bn (£1.7bn) at a conference in Paris.

During the event, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, raised the prospect that 1 million people could die of hunger in Sudan this year.

A Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK is proud to support the vital work of Centre for Information Resilience, which is shining a light on the appalling atrocities being committed across Sudan. Earlier this week, we committed a near doubling of essential humanitarian aid for Sudan – taking UK funding up to £89m – and announced new sanctions targeting businesses linked to both parties.

“We will continue use every diplomatic and economic lever at our disposal to end the violence.”


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