ONE sweltering afternoon back in 2004 I found myself in a remote village in western Sudan.

The area in which the village stood was then a faultline in the country’s civil war and one where the notorious Sudanese Arab Janjaweed militia launched occasional raids in which they would loot, rape, and kill.

The civilians they targeted included anyone deemed to be disloyal or part of a largely non-Arab rebellion against then-president Omar al-Bashir who was using the Janjaweed to put down an ­uprising that was being driven from the Darfur region.

The surviving locals I spoke with that day told of how a fortnight earlier they had fled as the Janjaweed swept into the village just before dawn.

­During their short but vicious assault the ­Janjaweed abducted women and children for forced labour and sexual slavery and stole herds of sheep and goats and what ­meagre ­belonging the villagers possessed ­before burning down their grass-thatched mud huts.

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Fast-forward almost 20 years and the long-serving Sudanese dictatorial ­president Omar al-Bashir has since been ousted in a 2019 coup but today the Janjaweed are still around albeit in a different guise.

Today too the man that heads them, ­General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, ­better known as Hemedti, is still the same one that led them all those years ago, but he too has since refashioned his role.

Right now

Both Hemedti and his ­Janjaweed – now known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – stand on one side of a bitter military divide in Sudan that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Opposing them in a struggle for power and control of Sudan’s vast and ­lucrative natural resources is ­another ­general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto leader and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

Until recently, Burhan and Hemedti were allies. The pair are said to have first met during the dark days of the Darfur conflict where they both served al-Bashir before working together to topple him in 2019 and then playing a key role in a ­second coup in 2021.

Later though, things began to go sour during negotiations to integrate the RSF into Sudan’s military as part of plans to restore civilian rule. Hemedti wants it to take 10 years while the army wants it to be completed within two.

Neither man, it appears, was willing to be subordinate to the other under the new hierarchy and the current hostilities are the culmination of what both parties now view as an existential fight for dominance.

This weekend – after seven days of this violent power struggle – gunfire ripped through residential neighbourhoods, and heavy weaponry thudded across the ­capital Khartoum on Friday at the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Already the fighting has killed ­hundreds and tipped Africa’s third-largest ­country – where around a quarter of people ­already rely on food aid – into a ­humanitarian ­disaster and a battle that analysts say could carry on for months, even years.

According to the United ­Nations, more than 400 people have been killed and at least 3500 have already been injured in the violence So far, an international push for a temporary 72-hour ceasefire to allow ­civilians to reach safety and visit family over the three-day Eid holiday has failed.

Meanwhile, plans are being ramped up to evacuate foreign nationals of a ­number of countries including the UK but so far have been prevented because of the ­fighting.

So where is all this heading for Sudan, how might it impact on the region and wider international community and what could be the eventual outcome?

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Perhaps the first thing to recognise is that many analysts see this as having the potential for a protracted war.

While the army is larger and has air power, the RSF is widely deployed inside neighbourhoods of Khartoum and other cities, giving neither side the edge for a quick victory.

While various official and non-official estimates place the Sudanese armed forces at around 210-220,000, the RSF is believed to number approximately 70,000 but are better trained and better equipped.

For now

The power struggle has certainly derailed any shift to civilian rule and raised fears of a wider conflict.

“The two sides who are fighting are not giving the impression that they want ­mediation for a peace between them right away,” said UN envoy Volker Perthes speaking to reporters by video link from Khartoum.

Should the fighting drag on as ­expected many Sudan specialists say the army is likely to gain the upper hand thanks to its aerial advantage and the logistical ­support it receives from neighbouring Egypt – but not a decisive victory.

For now, the capital Khartoum is the epicentre of the fighting but again ­ experts say the army should ­eventually capture the city since it has a larger ­military ­arsenal.

“I think the army … can degrade the RSF’s fundamental capability more than the RSF can degrade the army. But the RSF’s reach and strength across the ­country will persist,” said Sharath ­Srinivasan, author of When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention And Unending Wars In The Sudans.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Srinivasan said the RSF may eventually retreat to its stronghold in the western province of Darfur, as well as infiltrate and capture small pockets of land elsewhere.

Asked in an interview with the ­Financial Times whether his forces would ­prevail, Hemedti, speaking from ­Khartoum, ­replied: “We have the readiness, and now we’re in the battlefield. The battlefield will define everything.”

But according to a number of Sudan ­experts who spoke with Al Jazeera and various media, other factors too may ­define the outcome – notably the threat from within their own sides for both Hemedti and Burhan.

Hemedti especially appears vulnerable from within his own ranks and tribe. To begin with, the hierarchy of the RSF consists of senior officers from the Arab Rizeigat tribe, which comes from Darfur.

Many local leaders in the tribe are said to have greater loyalty to a rival of Hemedti known as Musa Hilal, a local sheikh and former Janjaweed leader. With bad blood between the two men ­going back some years and Hilal having his own militia as well as loyalists in the RSF, the scene could be set for a showdown within the RSF itself.

“The observation people are making is the possible disintegration of the RSF from within. The reading is that a lot of Rizeigat fighters would consider ­allying against Hemedti and with Musa Hilal,” said Anette Hoffmann, a Sudan expert with the Clingendael Institute, an ­independent think tank in The Hague.

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“This is just one component of the doom scenario. Civil war along ethnic lines with regional destabilisation and further disintegration of the RSF, rather than us having two homogenous blocs with clear territorial control,” Hoffmann told Al Jazeera.

Likewise, General Burhan, the ­country’s de facto leader and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Hemedti’s main rival for now has vulnerabilities of his own within his forces.

According to Jihad Mashamoun – a ­Sudanese researcher and a political analyst on Sudanese affairs – top military officials in the army, who are tied to the political Islamic movement in Sudan, pressured Burhan to neuter Hemedti’s military capacity because he threatens their power.

Mashamoun believes these top army officials will not accept any outcome other than the full demobilisation of the RSF and Hemedti’s exile from Sudan.

“I have reason to believe that army ­officers pressured al-Burhan for this final showdown with the RSF. So, if he doesn’t follow through in disintegrating the RSF, then there could be a coup against him,” Mashamoun said.

“I see that only happening if Burhan ­accepts to negotiate with Hemedti ­without him leaving the country.”

Sudan’s politics have always been ­labyrinthine but adding even ­further to this complex mix is the role its regional neighbours and other ­countries play in the current power struggle ­between Hemedti’s RSF and Burhan’s ­Sudanese Army.

Should the conflict become a full-blown civil war, it has the capacity to suck in the entire region and some global powers, a danger highlighted last week by Endre Stiansen, Norway’s ambassador to ­Sudan, whose Khartoum residence was hit by a missile at the start of the fighting.

“One of the worst things that can ­happen is that this becomes a ­regional conflict where countries in the ­neighbourhood ­intervene on behalf of ­either of the ­parties,” warned Stiansen.

To that effect, there is no shortage of regional players who are already or could become more deeply involved in a proxy war aimed at protecting their stake in ­resource-rich Sudan.

Considered one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources that include oil, gold, iron ore, copper, tungsten, chromium ore and zinc, Sudan both economically and politically matters to both regional and world powers.

First, there is Egypt, a long-term backer of Burhan who trained there and whose armed forces have deep ties with the ­Sudanese military.

The two armies ­conduct regular war games, most recently this month before the current ­fighting erupted and Cairo remains a strong ­supporter of Burhan.

The current crisis will also test other leading regional players: the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi ­Arabia. The two have been strong financial and ­diplomatic backers of Sudan’s military leaders since the 2019 overthrow of ­president al-Bashir.

Initially, the UAE was considered closer to Hemedti with whose help, ­Khartoum provided troops to fight ­alongside the ­Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and ­allegedly sent Sudanese mercenaries to support the Libyan warlord Khalifa ­Haftar, who was backed by Abu Dhabi.

But as most Gulf powers have in ­recent years rolled back on their more ­interventionist foreign policies, they have struck something of a balance in their ties to Hemedti and Burhan.

Anna Jacobs, Gulf analyst at Crisis Group, said the prime concern of Saudi Arabia, which shares a long stretch of Red Sea coastline with Sudan and has been increasingly focused on domestic development, was preventing Sudan falling into a state of collapse, similar to Libya.

“Sudan’s stability is really a huge ­priority for Saudi Arabia,” Jacobs was cited by the Financial Times as saying.

BUT there are yet other reasons too why outside players are involved – ­notably ­Russia. During the decades-long rule of the dictator al-Bashir, Russia was a ­dominant force and at one point, Moscow reached an initial deal to build a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

In other words, this is a country which provides the Russian military with a ­strategic location. As recently as February, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to finalise a 25-year lease for a Russian base housing up to 300 troops and four ­warships in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, the main conduit for Western trade and oil.

This Russia achieved in return for ­supplying arms to Sudan

Perhaps even more significantly, today Russia’s interests are also represented by the notorious Wagner mercenary group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. ­Wagner’s stock in trade when not sending ­mercenaries to the frontlines in Ukraine is using its military muscle to squeeze money out of Africa’s natural resources.

According to Joana de Deus Pereira, senior research fellow at think tank the Royal United Services Institute ­Europe, Wagner has been protecting mining sites linked to M-Invest and Meroe Gold, which data suggests belong to Prigozhin ­affiliated companies.

In exchange for the protection of the sites, Wagner has been granted profits from the concessions. Meroe and M-Invest have been ­sanctioned by both the US and EU.

And so, there is much at stake in this battle between Sudan’s “generals”, with neither for the moment landing a decisive military blow or appearing interested in mediation or a lasting ceasefire.

Should Hemedti and his RSF eventually be ­ousted from the capital, as most military analysts believe, then he could well retreat to his tribal base in Darfur where all those years ago his Janjaweed ran amok.

Should that scenario unfold, then what for now is a two-sided fight could easily unravel into a wider civil war between regions and ethnic groups, especially if internal divisions manifest themselves on either side.

For the moment, however, the ­greatest concern must be for those ordinary ­Sudanese citizens, whose hopes for a peaceful transition toward democracy have once again been dashed as they find ­themselves caught in the crossfire.