KHARTOUM, Sudan — Hundreds of Arab militia fighters, many riding motorbikes or driving vehicles mounted with guns, attacked a village in Sudan’s western Darfur region on Sunday, torching homes and shops and killing at least 150 people, aid groups and United Nations officials said.
The violence, which later spread to a nearby town, was the latest in a series of clashes involving Arab and ethnic African groups in Darfur in recent months, and one of the country’s deadliest episodes in years. The attack highlighted the growing security vacuum that experts say has worsened in tandem with a political crisis in Sudan, where the military seized power in October.
The General Coordination for Refugees and Displaced in Darfur, an aid agency, said 168 people had been killed and another 98 injured in the violence around Kereneik in West Darfur.
A United Nations official in Sudan confirmed that account, saying the U.N. had received reports of 150 and 200 deaths. The attack started at dawn, when hundreds of armed men encircled Kereneik before opening fire, later going house to house and killing civilians, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the lack of permission to speak publicly.
In a statement late Sunday, Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy to Sudan, deplored “the heinous killings of civilians” in Kereneik and called for an immediate end to the violence and a transparent investigation into its causes.
Adam Regal, a spokesman for the aid group, laid blame for the violence on the Janjaweed, the Arab militia responsible for the worst atrocities in Darfur since conflict erupted there about 20 years ago. Mr. Regal circulated photos that showed swathes of charred buildings, some still on fire, and apparent Janjaweed fighters.
Sudan’s military ruler, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, dispatched soldiers to Darfur by air to contain the violence. But witnesses said the attack had taken place with little apparent resistance from the security forces already deployed to the area, including troops from Sudan’s military and members of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group.
By evening, the violence has spread to the town of El Geneina. Shooting erupted outside the main hospital where Arab fighters brought wounded men to be treated, causing the streets to empty as residents feared they would also come under attack, witnesses said.
“The situation in the town is upside down,” said Ibrahim Musa, a resident of El Geneina, speaking by phone. Doctors, government officials and militia commanders had been killed during clashes in the area during the day, he said.
By midnight, the streets had emptied as residents stayed home, worried about what would come next. “All the people are waiting,” he said. “There is some patrolling of security forces in the streets. We don’t know what will happen in the morning.”
At one level, the bloodshed was another tragic episode in the long-running cycle of violence between ethnic Arab pastoralists and non-Arab farming communities in Darfur.
The worst violence occurred in the 2000s, when Janjaweed fighters backed by the Sudanese military carried out a ruthless campaign that led to charges of war crimes and genocide. Earlier this month, Ali Kushayb, a Janjaweed commander, went on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he faces 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He denies the charges.
Hopes that the cycle of violence in Darfur would be broken after the ouster of Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, in 2019, have come to nothing. Planned reform of Sudan’s security forces has yet to start. And things have only worsened since the October coup, led by General al-Burhan, that has plunged the distant capital, Khartoum, into political chaos.
Since General al-Burhan ousted Sudan’s civilian prime minister, his efforts to forge a new government have been frustrated by an array of centrifugal forces, most notably the street protesters who clash regularly with the riot police, demanding a return to civilian-led rule.
And tension is quietly building with his deputy, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, a former Janjaweed commander from Darfur who now commands the powerful R.S.F. paramilitary force, according to western diplomats.
A proposed new security force for Darfur, combining local armed groups with official Sudanese forces, envisaged under a 2020 peace agreement, has yet to come into being. As a result, even small incidents can flare into violence.
The current clashes started on Friday, a day after the bodies of two Arab nomads suspected of cattle rustling were found near Kereneik, the U.N. official said. Arab fighters seeking revenge attacked the village, prompted clashes with local armed groups that spiraled until the attack on Sunday.