UN envoy: Humanitarian deal between warring sides is a first step toward a cease-fire in Sudan

CAIRO (AP) — The U.N. envoy for Sudan on Friday welcomed a deal between the country's warring generals promising safe passage to civilians fleeing the conflict and protection for humanitarian operations in the East African nation.

The envoy, Volker Perthes, said the agreement was an important first step toward a cease-fire to the fighting which is about to enter its fourth week.

The Sudanese military and the country’s paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, signed a pact late Thursday vowing to alleviate humanitarian suffering across the country, although a truce remains elusive.

Both sides also agreed to refrain from attacks likely to harm civilians. The violence has already killed over 600 people, including civilians, according to the U.N. healthy agency.

“The most important element is that both sides commit to continue talks," Perthes said during an online U.N. news conference from his office in Port Sudan. International efforts to turn the deal into a cease-fire have already started, he added.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the agreement, which outlines a series of shared pledges and promises to "facilitate humanitarian action in order to meet the needs of civilians.”

The deal signing-ceremony, brokered by the United Sates and Saudi Arabia, was aired by Saudi state media in the early hours of Friday morning. Neither the military nor the RSF immediately issued statements acknowledging Thursday's pact.

It does not provide any detail on how the agreed-on humanitarian promises would be upheld by troops on the ground. Previously, both sides agreed to several short cease-fires, since the fighting broke out on April 15, but all have been violated.

In a post on Twitter, Amjad Farid, a Sudan analyst and former aid to the country’s prime minister, said the deal is unlikely to bring any real change on the ground. Other commentators expressed similar skepticism.

It is “composed of texts that are already in the international humanitarian law and treaties related to the treatment of civilians in times of war,” Farid wrote.

Despite the signing, residents in Khartoum said fighting continued throughout Friday morning.

“I woke up to an airstrike (landing) nearby,” said Waleed Adam, a resident living in the east of the capital.

Over the past weeks, the fighting has turned the capital Khartoum into an urban battlefield, and triggered deadly ethnic clashes in the western Darfur region. Around 200,000 people have fled the country, said UNHCR spokeswoman Olga Sarrado, who was also present at Friday's news conference.

The U.S. State Department late Thursday said talks in Jeddah will now focus on arranging “an effective cease-fire of up to approximately 10 days.”

The U.N. and several rights groups have accused both sides — the military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — of numerous human rights violations. The army has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian areas, while the RSF has been condemned for widespread looting, abusing residents, and turning civilian homes into operational bases. Both continue to level blame at each other for the violations.

Perthes, who has received death threats and calls to resign, said he is committed to staying in Port Sudan and overseeing the humanitarian effort taking place in the coastal city. He described those who threatened him as marginal “extremists” and said that there is a wide appreciation of U.N. efforts in Sudan.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the signing of the agreement, which could boost relief operations for millions of Sudanese in need, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The U.N. chief reiterated his call for a halt in fighting but the organization would “continue to deliver humanitarian aid, ceasefire or not”, Dujarric said.