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UN envoy says Sudan's warring sides agree to negotiate

CAIRO (AP) — Sudan's warring generals have agreed to send representatives for negotiations, potentially in Saudi Arabia, the top U.N. official in the country said on Monday, even as the two sides clashed in the capital of Khartoum despite another three-day extension of a fragile cease-fire.

If the talks come together, they would initially focus on establishing a “stable and reliable” cease-fire monitored by national and international observers, Volker Perthes told The Associated Press. However, he warned that there were still challenges in holding the negotiations.

A string of temporary truces over the past week has eased fighting only in some areas while fierce battles have continued elsewhere, driving civilians from their homes and pushing the country further into disaster.

Humanitarian groups have been trying to restore the flow of help to a country where nearly a third of the population of 46 million relied on international aid even before the explosion of violence. The U.N. food agency on Monday said it was ending the temporary suspension of its operations in Sudan, put in place after three of its team members were killed in the war-wrecked Darfur region early in the fighting.

The World Food Program will resume food distribution in four provinces — al-Qadaref, Gezira, Kassala and White Nile — working in areas where security permits, Executive Director Cindy McCain said. The numbers of those in need of help will “grow significantly as fighting continues,” she said. “To best protect our necessary humanitarian workers and the people of Sudan, the fighting must stop.’’

A day earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross flew in a planeload of medical supplies to bring some relief to hospitals overwhelmed by the mayhem.

The United States conducted its first evacuation of American civilians from Sudan. Watched over by U.S. military drones, a group of Americans made the perilous journey by road from Khartoum, to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. On Monday, a U.S. Navy fast transport ship took 308 evacuees from Port Sudan to the Saudi port of Jeddah, according to Saudi officials.

Direct talks, if they take place, would be the first major sign of progress since fighting erupted on April 15 between the army and a rival paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces. For much of the conflict, army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan and RSF commander Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo have appeared determined to fight to the end.

Their struggle for power has put millions of Sudanese in the middle of gun battles, artillery bombardments and airstrikes. Tens of thousands have fled Khartoum and other cities, and more than two-thirds of hospitals in areas with active fighting are out of service, with fighters looting the dwindling supplies.

At least 436 civilians have been killed and more than 1,200 injured since the fighting began, according to the latest figures Monday by the Doctors’ Syndicate, which tracks civilian casualties. As of a week ago, the Sudanese Health Ministry had counted at least 530 people killed, including civilians and combatants, with another 4,500 wounded, but the figures haven't been updated since.

Explosions and gunfire echoed in parts of Khartoum and its neighboring city, Omdurman, on Monday, residents said, hours after the two sides committed to the 72-hour cease-fire extension.

Atiya Abdalla Atiya, Secretary of the Doctors’ Syndicate, said the fighting raged early Monday in different areas in Khartoum, including the military’s headquarters, the Republican Palace, and the international airport. There were also clashes in the upscale neighborhood of Kafouri, he said.

Many hospitals in the capital remained out of service or inaccessible because of the fighting, while others have been occupied by the warring factions, particularly the RSF, he said.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have led an international push to get the generals to stop fighting, then engage in deeper negotiations to resolve the crisis.

Speaking from Port Sudan, Perthes said there are still daunting challenges in getting the two sides to abide by a real halt in fighting. One possibility was to establish a monitoring mechanism that includes Sudanese and foreign observers, “but that has to be negotiated,” he said.

Talks on a sustained cease-fire could take place in either Saudi Arabia or South Sudan, he said, adding that the former may be easier logistically — though each side would need safe passage through the other's territory. "That is very difficult in a situation where there is a lack of trust,” he said.

For the past week, people have been streaming out of Khartoum and other urban areas torn by fighting, moving in droves to wherever they can find safety.

In Port Sudan, thousands were camped out, hoping to get onto evacuation ferries. Many families, including small children, have been sleeping outside for days, including hundreds of Syrians and Yemenis unable so far to get on boats.

“Most of the people are sitting on their bags,” said one Syrian, Mohamed Amr Mustafa.

More than 70,000 South Sudanese refugees who had been living in Khartoum have fled to the neighboring White Nile province, settling in already overcrowded camps, said Mustafa Amr Abarou, a spokesman for the Sudanese refugee agency. At least 10 trucks a day of people fleeing Khartoum continue to arrive, straining the agency’s abilities, he said. Sudan hosts over 1.3 million refugees, including 800,000 from South Sudan, according to the U.N. figures.

The eruption of fighting capped months of worsening Burhan-Dagalo disputes as the international community tried to work out a deal for establishing civilian rule.

“We all saw the enormous tensions,” Perthes said. “Our efforts to de-escalate did not succeed." He said he had been warning repeatedly that “any single spark” could cause the power struggle to explode.

Perthes warned of a “major humanitarian crisis” as people were running out of food and fresh water in Khartoum and the fighting damaged water systems.

A real cease-fire is vital to getting access to residents who are trapped in their homes or injured, he said. “If we don’t get a stable cease-fire ... the humanitarian situation will be even worse.”

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