Foreign Office officials are holding secret talks with the paramilitary group that has been waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Sudan for the past year.

News that the British government and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are engaged in clandestine negotiations has prompted warnings that such talks risk legitimising the notorious militia – which continues to commit multiple war crimes – while undermining Britain’s moral credibility in the region.

One human rights group described the UK’s willingness to negotiate with the RSF as “shocking”. In December, the US accused the paramilitary force of committing crimes against humanity as it carries out widespread massacres and rapes of civilians, many from the African Masalit ethnic community.

The revelations come as the war between the RSF and Sudan’s military reaches its first anniversary on Monday.

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Fighting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on 15 April 2023 as an escalating power struggle between the two main factions of the military regime finally turned deadly.&nbsp;

On one side are the Sudanese armed forces, who remain broadly loyal to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto ruler. Against him are the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militias who follow the former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

Hemedti’s power struggle with Burhan can be traced back to 2019, when the dictatorial president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted following countrywide protests. Bashir had deployed the Janjaweed, the forerunners of the RSF, to crush a rebellion in Darfur in 2003. Analysts trace many of the roots of the latest conflict back to the appalling violence and human rights abuses – possibly genocide – committed in the region at that time.

The conflict has plunged Sudan into “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”, according to UN officials. It has created the world’s worst displacement crisis, scattering more than 8 million people internally and across Sudan’s borders. Nearly 2 million people have fled into neighbouring countries, putting mounting pressure on Chad and South Sudan.

Officials from the UN’s World Food Programme warn that nearly 28 million people across the region face acute food insecurity, including 18 million in Sudan, 7 million in South Sudan, and nearly 3 million in Chad.

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What is happening in Sudan?

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Fighting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on 15 April 2023 as an escalating power struggle between the two main factions of the military regime finally turned deadly. 

On one side are the Sudanese armed forces, who remain broadly loyal to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto ruler. Against him are the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militias who follow the former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

Hemedti’s power struggle with Burhan can be traced back to 2019, when the dictatorial president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted following countrywide protests. Bashir had deployed the Janjaweed, the forerunners of the RSF, to crush a rebellion in Darfur in 2003. Analysts trace many of the roots of the latest conflict back to the appalling violence and human rights abuses – possibly genocide – committed in the region at that time.

The conflict has plunged Sudan into “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”, according to UN officials. It has created the world’s worst displacement crisis, scattering more than 8 million people internally and across Sudan’s borders. Nearly 2 million people have fled into neighbouring countries, putting mounting pressure on Chad and South Sudan.

Officials from the UN’s World Food Programme warn that nearly 28 million people across the region face acute food insecurity, including 18 million in Sudan, 7 million in South Sudan, and nearly 3 million in Chad.

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Thousands of Sudanese civilians have been killed, while more than 8 million have been forced to flee their homes and 18 million people are suffering crisis levels of food insecurity.

Among the crimes committed by the RSF is a rampage in Darfur that a UN report said left up to 15,000 dead in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state. The massacre prompted comparisons to the genocidal massacres in the region two decades ago.

Such atrocities, as well as reports of RSF fighters committing extrajudicial killings, looting aid, and the widespread rape of women and children, have profoundly weakened the group’s legitimacy among the Sudanese people.

A fire rages in a livestock market in al-Fasher, North Darfur’s capital, last September after being attacked by the RSF. The militias set fire to at least 27 sites in the state. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Yet a freedom of information (FoI) response reveals that senior Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) officials instigated talks with the RSF. The most recent meeting between the UK and the paramilitary group was last month.

The FoI response stated: “The FCDO has both tried, and been successful in, contacting representatives from the Rapid Support Forces. The last successful contact was on Wednesday 6 March when officials from the FCDO met with representatives from the RSF.”

UK officials added that, so far, it had not met the RSF’s feared leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti.

The 49-year-old is a former commander of the Janjaweed militias – the RSF’s forerunner, which was accused of genocidal violence in Darfur in 2003 – and more recently has allied himself with Russia and its Wagner mercenaries.

The RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, at a rally near Khartoum in 2019. Photograph: AFP/Getty

In January, Hemedti launched a diplomatic tour of African countries in what observers said was an attempt to portray himself as a viable leader. He visited Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana and South Africa weeks after the head of Sudan’s army, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, had made a similar tour as both generals tried to rally regional players to their side of the conflict.

Dr Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, said that although he understood the temptation to talk to the RSF, it was an approach that had only fuelled violence in Sudan.

“Talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades,” he said. “Pragmatism has got us nowhere.”

Srinivasan, an expert on the failures of peacemaking in Sudan, added: “On top of that, when [the RSF are] committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, you’re putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Maddy Crowther, co-director of the human rights organisation Waging Peace, said: “I’m shocked. It feels like a terrible move. For the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face.”

She said the global Sudanese diaspora would greet news that the UK was secretly talking to the RSF as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf”.

Crowther said: “There’ll be absolute shock, a real feeling of being completely let down by the UK government.”

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She added that history proved talking to the RSF had yielded few positives. Before the most recent fighting broke out, the west had been attempting to coax the group towards embracing democracy.

“These [UK] talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” Crowther said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

A makeshift camp in Borota, Chad, of Sudanese refugees from Darfur region who had fled over the border last year. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

However, the FCDO said the talks were an attempt to increase access to humanitarian aid and end the fighting against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which are also accused of war crimes.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence – to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”

It was an approach that had merit, according to Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow on Chatham House’s Africa programme.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95% of Darfur,” he said.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

The inauguration in Khartoum of thousands of men into the RSF in 2017. The paramilitary force was first accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur in 2003. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

However, the west’s attempts at peacemaking have been under scrutiny since the war began, after diplomats helped create a power-sharing deal in 2019 between Hemedti and Burhan that culminated in conflict and chaos.

Srinivasan said: “The problem in Sudan is that we’ve talked to them [Hemedti and Burhan] before and they asked to share power, something that re-situated them in the centre of government.

“So the danger is that in the name of ending the violence, you talk to them, legitimate them and bring them back into a position of power.”

Fresh attempts at a peace deal are due to begin in Jeddah on Thursday. The Saudi city hosted several rounds of talks last year, before the army withdrew from negotiations, alleging that the RSF had violated the ceasefire.

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