The killing of a powerful governor in Darfur, in western Sudan, has heightened worries that fighting between the country’s warring military factions is pushing a region blighted by genocide two decades ago into a new ethnic civil war.
Since April, Sudan’s military has been battling the Rapid Support Forces, a well-armed paramilitary group that until recently was part of the national armed forces. The fighting has razed parts of the capital, Khartoum, and also engulfed Darfur. Peace talks led by American and Saudi diplomats have failed to broker a durable cease-fire.
With no end in sight to the fierce national conflict, the killing on Wednesday of Khamis Abdullah Abakar, the governor of West Darfur, one of the five states that make up the region, threatened to further ignite a tinderbox territory that has a history of catastrophic ethnic conflict.
The United Nations mission to Sudan said in a statement that “compelling eyewitness accounts attribute this act to Arab militias and the Rapid Support Forces.”
The killing came just hours after Mr. Abakar had given a television interview in which he blamed the Rapid Support Forces for a recent storm of violence that has led to hundreds of deaths in the area. Both the R.S.F. and the Sudanese military have been accused of backing rival armed groups in Darfur.
By some accounts, gunmen abducted Mr. Abakar from the state capital, El Geneina, though claims about the manner of his killing were impossible to verify immediately. Hours later, a video circulated showing Mr. Abakar’s body in blood-soaked clothes and bearing grievous wounds. Analysts said in interviews that the video appeared to be genuine, but it could not be immediately verified.
The killing of such a high-profile figure threatened to further escalate the violence that has spread across Darfur since the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese military began clashing. Already, spillover fighting has seen villages razed, sent refugees pouring across a nearby border and stoked fears that the broader conflict is spiraling out of control.
Mr. Abakar’s killing also heightened concern that the leaders of the two factions — the military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the R.S.F. leader, Lt. Gen Mohamed Hamdan — were struggling to control the forces they had unleashed.
In dueling statements, the military and the R.S.F. blamed each other for the death of Mr. Abakar. General Hamdan even phoned the United Nations envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, to reiterate his denials, said a U.N. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly. (That call in turn scotched speculation that General Hamdan, who has not been seen in public for many weeks, had been badly injured or killed.)
Humanitarian leaders have repeatedly warned that the crisis in Sudan could soon get much worse. The fighting has already displaced 2.2 million people and caused more than 950 deaths, according to the main Sudanese doctors’ union. Other estimates put the death count at more than 1,800.
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said on Tuesday that he was “highly worried” by what he called “the increasing ethnic dimension of the violence” in the Darfur region, as well as by reports of widespread sexual violence.
David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, an aid group, warned that Sudan was on course to become “the next Syria: the world’s largest humanitarian crisis both in terms of people in need and displacement to neighboring countries.”
Although much of the focus of the broader conflict is on Khartoum, Darfur has seen some of the most intense bloodshed. In May, 280 people were killed in El Geneina when gunmen backed by R.S.F. paramilitaries poured into the town, clashing with local armed groups in violence that often targeted civilians.
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported on Thursday that another 6,000 people had fled El Geneina into nearby Chad, joining about 100,000 other people who had crossed the same border since mid-April.
Mr. Abakar was a decades-long veteran of the conflict in Darfur. He came to prominence in the 1990s as a leader who defended his Masalit ethnic group against attack by ethnic Arab fighters. Eddie Thomas, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, a regional research body, said that Mr. Abakar had been “a village defense person,” someone “who organized to defend their villages against the burnings.”
Mr. Abakar was jailed under Sudan’s dictator at the time, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, but escaped and fled to Chad. He later emerged as the leader of one rebel faction after Darfur plunged into civil war in 2003, when his fighters opposed the notorious Janjaweed militia, whose commanders included the current R.S.F. leader, General Hamdan.
Mr. Abakar turned to politics in 2021 when he signed a peace deal with Khartoum and was made governor of West Darfur.
When the fighting in Sudan erupted in April, Mr. Abakar joined other officials in Darfur in calling for a cease-fire and insisting that Darfur should not be dragged into a conflict between rival military branches.