Warring Parties in Sudan to Hold Talks in Saudi Arabia

Representatives of two warring Sudanese generals are expected to meet in Saudi Arabia on Saturday to discuss terms of a cease-fire and mechanisms for allowing humanitarian aid into the country, U.S., Saudi and Sudanese officials said on Friday.

The U.S. State Department and the Saudi foreign ministry have helped organize the meeting, which would take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on the Red Sea across from Sudan. The Saudi government has been running evacuation ships between Jeddah and Port Sudan.

The two generals have agreed to cease-fires in recent days, but their troops have violated them.

The Sudanese army confirmed in a post on Facebook that its delegation left for Jeddah on Friday evening to discuss “specific details of the armistice,” which is aimed at “securing and creating appropriate conditions for dealing with the humanitarian situation of our citizens.”

The U.S. and Saudi governments released a joint statement on Friday night that said they “urge both parties to take in consideration the interests of the Sudanese nation and its people and actively engage in the talks towards a cease-fire and end to the conflict, which will spare the Sudanese people’s suffering and ensure the availability of humanitarian aid to affected areas.”

A senior State Department official said the discussions in Jeddah would not include negotiations over the volatile issues around integration of the armed forces and chain of command that led to the start of fighting on April 15 between Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who controls the Sudanese military, and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

African officials are expected to manage those talks whenever they start, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate diplomacy. Two African institutions, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa, would take leading roles.

Since the conflict began, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other State Department officials have been talking directly to the generals and trying to coordinate efforts with a partnership of countries with influence in Sudan called the Quad. Those are the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Britain.

The State Department said on Friday that Mr. Blinken had spoken with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, about the fighting in Sudan. Mr. Blinken thanked Saudi Arabia for helping get U.S. citizens from Sudan to Jeddah, and the two diplomats “affirmed their countries’ intensive collaboration on diplomatic work to bring about an end to the fighting in Sudan,” the State Department said in a summary of the call.

The fighting in Sudan has left at least 550 people dead and nearly half a million displaced, according to Sudanese government statistics and the United Nations. The actual number of the dead is almost certainly much higher.

Sudanese civilians and officials have been working with the United States and other foreign powers to try to get the nation to move from military rule to a civilian-run government, with democratic elections, ever since mass protests in 2019 led to the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the dictator of 30 years.

However, in October 2021, General al-Burhan and General Hamdan carried out a coup, subverting a transition process. Officials from the United States and other countries were working on a new agreement with the generals to get the process back on track, and diplomats thought weeks ago that the generals were ready to embrace the pact, but then they began arguing over how to integrate their forces, including over a timeline.

The chain of command was an issue, too: General Hamdan wanted to report directly to a civilian leader, while General al-Burhan wanted General Hamdan to report to him.

One of the last plans discussed before fighting broke out was a proposal that both generals maintain operational control of their own forces, and sit on an integration committee with a new civilian head of state, the State Department official said.

If the generals agree to allow a secure way for aid to enter Sudan, most or all of the immediate aid would come by ship to Port Sudan and then be taken overland to Khartoum, the capital, and other places. The United States would work with the United Nations on this process, the State Department official said.

Critics say the Biden administration should have tried to punish the two generals after the 2021 coup rather than working closely with them. U.S. officials say they and partners withheld economic aid and debt relief from the Sudanese government, and believed that would push the generals to support a transition to civilian rule and democracy.

When the conflict began three weeks ago, both sides thought they could easily win, several African officials said on Friday. But as the battle intensified, particularly in Khartoum, the rival parties appeared to accept that there was a need for talks. That realization motivated a flurry of diplomatic efforts by African governments in recent days.

On Tuesday, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan announced that the two sides had agreed to a weeklong truce and would name representatives to peace talks. On Thursday, General al-Burhan sent a special envoy to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, in what officials said was among the first public signs that the two generals were heeding regional and global pressure.

Discussions also began about when and where longer-term deliberations about power-sharing or a meeting between the two generals could take place. The capitals of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya were suggested as possible options.

On Friday, Kenya’s foreign minister, Alfred N. Mutua, said his country was putting together a plan that would bring the various political stakeholders to Kenya to discuss the future of Sudan. He said that the proposal was being shared with African, Western and Middle Eastern partners, and that he hoped the process would begin in three weeks.

“We do believe that the concept to work on African solutions for African problems and silencing the guns in Africa is very applicable at this time,” Mr. Mutua said.

But some officials still doubt how committed the generals are to long-term peace.

“Both sides are still thinking or would still prefer a clear victory over some form of negotiated solution,” Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy in Sudan, said in a phone interview from Port Sudan on Friday.

“And so any notion of the two parties coming together as equals and speaking about peace,” he said, “that is, to my understanding, rejected and absolutely rejected by both sides for the time being. And therefore, I think to me, the most realistic efforts right now are on trying to get a cease-fire.”

Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.