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The two generals fighting for control in Sudan were once allies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK. Now we want to take a closer look at the two generals waging a power struggle in Sudan. These two men actually have a long history of working together. Nearly 20 years ago, they were allies in a brutal military crackdown in Sudan's Darfur region, which was deemed a genocide.

NPR's Greg Myre has been looking into their story and joins us now. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So before we get into the details, can you just help us frame this conflict? Like, how should we view these two generals at the center of all this fighting right now?

MYRE: Well, these generals are fighting for military control, for political control and to protect their extensive business interests. Now, I spoke about the generals with Alex de Waal, who's at Tufts University. He's an expert on Sudan who's been involved in that country for decades.

ALEX DE WAAL: What we are seeing is a mobster shootout. We're seeing two gang bosses shooting it out for control of the terrain in which they make their illicit money.

CHANG: Two gang bosses? Wow, I mean, this does sound like a pretty brutal power struggle. Can you just tell us more about who these men are?

MYRE: Yeah. One of them is General Abdel-Fattah Burhan. He's the commander of the military, which, in effect, means he's been the leader or co-leader of Sudan for the past few years. His now-rival is General Mohamed Dagalo. He's widely known as Hemedti. He heads a powerful paramilitary group that's also part of the government security forces. Now, in 2019, these generals turned on the longtime president and helped him - drive him from power during a popular uprising. Since then, the two generals have been the most powerful men in the country, but their partnership became strained. It broke down, and this ignited the fighting we've seen in the capital, Khartoum.

CHANG: Well, can we go back, Greg, to the early 2000s? - because there was mass slaughter in Sudan's Darfur region. Can you just remind us what was happening at the time and what was the role of these two generals?

MYRE: Yeah, right. In 2003, rebels in Darfur - a very poor, remote part of western Sudan - rose up against the government. The Sudanese military was sent in. The uprising was crushed in brutal fashion - around 300,000 people killed, many of them civilians. Now, General Hemedti is actually from Darfur, but he sided with the central government and became a leader of a local militia called the Janjaweed, which is blamed for many of the atrocities. This militia evolved directly into the paramilitary group he leads today called the Rapid Support Forces.

CHANG: The RSF - OK. And what about the other general?

MYRE: General Burhan was sent to Darfur during the same period as the overall army commander. And this is where the two first came into contact, and they worked together to crush the uprising.

CHANG: Well, the U.S. and the international community ruled that a genocide. And yet, these two men have remained in power, right?

MYRE: Yeah, they - right. They remained in power and actually rose through the ranks by remaining close to the former president, Omar al-Bashir. Now, the International Criminal Court has charged the former president and several others with genocide and crimes against humanity. We should stress that the two generals who are currently fighting in Sudan have not been charged. But Alex de Waal and human rights groups say both were very deeply involved in the bloodshed there.

CHANG: All right. Well, very quickly, Greg, what are the chances that the current fighting can be stopped, do you think?

MYRE: Well, de Waal believes that there's a very small window for the international community to pressure the generals and pull them back from the brink, but he says it's a very brief period.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.