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West Darfur Governor Killing After Genocide Claims Raises Concern

Map of Sudan showing North, South and West Darfur.

WASHINGTON — Analysts say Wednesday’s killing of West Darfur State's governor Khamis Abdullah Abbakar will likely heighten ethnic polarization in the state and beyond and possibly trigger a cycle of tribal retaliations barring an effective intervention to address the situation.

Governor Abbakar was reportedly killed just hours after he publicly accused Sudan's paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, and allied militias of engaging in a campaign of genocide against civilians in Al Geneina, capital of West Darfur State.

Sudan's army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, condemned the assassination of Abbakar and placed the blame on the RSF, who have been locked in a deadly conflict with the army for nine weeks. Responding to the accusations, the paramilitary group released a statement denouncing the killing of Abbakar, attributing it to "outlaws" collaborating with Sudanese military intelligence amidst the ongoing tribal conflict in West Darfur State.

Saleh Mahmoud, president of the Darfur Bar Association, told VOA the killing of Abbakar has larger implications in the region and in the country.

"Ethnic polarization is very much expected to happen. It is tribal. Unless there’s an intervention from very influential actors, this will lead to other consequences definitely, because it’s tribal," Mahmoud said.

Tracing back to 2003, Mahmoud shed light on the conflict's origins where former President Omar al-Bashir recruited Arab militias to quell rebellion led by non-Arab tribes, resulting in what the United States called genocide and the International Criminal Court issuing indictments against Bashir and others on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

"The recent escalation is a continuation of the historical conflict between ethnic groups: indigenous groups, the Masalit, and Arabs—local and those coming from outside the country," Mahmoud said, adding that dispute over land is at the heart of the historical conflict in Darfur.

Prior to the death of the governor, the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Sudan and head of the organization’s Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, UNITAMS, Volker Perthes, expressed deep concern over the situation in Al Geneina.

Perthes issued a statement on Tuesday highlighting the alarming rise in violence since late April, with an increasing number of large-scale targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnic identities.

These attacks, allegedly perpetrated by Arab militias and "individuals" in Rapid Support Force uniforms, indicate a distressing pattern of ethnic targeting, Perthes said.

UNITAMS condemned the killing of Abbakar calling it a "heinous act," adding that "compelling eyewitness accounts attribute this act to Arab militias and the Rapid Support Forces, even though the RSF communicated a denial of their involvement to the mission."

Describing the situation as highly complex and chaotic, Mahmoud points out that Sudan's warring parties, the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary are embroiled in conflicts across all five states of the Darfur region.

Within this atmosphere of lawlessness, blame is widespread, stated Mahmoud. Some contributing factors include the departure of the United Nations-African Union hybrid peacekeeping mission in Darfur in 2020, which left a significant security vacuum.

Additionally, the failure to implement a provision of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement to deploy a joint security force to maintain stability in Darfur, and the reluctance of the army garrison in Al Geneina to intervene and quell ethnic violence exacerbate the prevailing state of impunity.

Mahmoud also highlighted the absence of an effective police force and functioning criminal courts to hold perpetrators accountable, further fueling the culture of impunity that plagues Darfur.