As the deadly conflict in Sudan approaches six months, the country’s de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has admitted that the fighting could lead to a wider humanitarian disaster in the region.
The war between his army and rival Rapid Support Forces (RSF) broke out in mid-April over plans to integrate the paramilitary group, four years after former ruler Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a popular uprising.
Ceasefire talks to end the conflict have failed to hold, with both sides accusing the other of violations. But al-Burhan said negotiations in Jeddah mediated by the United States and Saudi Arabia could still succeed.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the military leader expressed his desire for a peaceful solution to end the fighting that has killed thousands of civilians and left millions civilians have been displaced.
Al Jazeera: During your speech to the UN General Assembly, you repeatedly called for the Rapid Support Forces to be declared a terrorist entity. How important is this to solve the situation in your country?
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan: What the Rapid Support Forces have done to the Sudanese people again and again obviously qualifies them as terrorists and must be punished. What these gangs committed is in fact a crime against humanity. And I believe that classifying them as a terrorist organization will limit their power and sympathy for them.
Al Jazeera: You have also warned that this fighting could spread across borders and that it is not just a local war. The danger of this is a massive humanitarian disaster across the region, and not just in Sudan. Is it not?
Al Burhan: This conflict will culminate in [neighbouring] countries and will not be limited to Sudan. The majority of [RSF] fighters come from neighboring countries. Yes, most definitely. This could spread to other countries and threaten security in the region and the world.
Al Jazeera: RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has issued a message saying he is ready for a ceasefire and wants to negotiate. Do you think negotiation is still possible?
Al Burhan: It’s not possible, honestly. He is the one who continued to fight in El-Geneina, other cities and near the headquarters of our army. That is why in Jeddah, when we came to some agreement, he did not stick to those agreements.
Al Jazeera: The UN Special Representative for Sudan, who recently resigned, Volker Perthes, has said the blame for the conflict lies with both sides. He accused your forces of using planes to bomb civilians. He accused the RSF of sexual attacks on civilians. Do you think it’s that simple, that the blame is on both sides?
Al Burhan: Well, armed forces have a constitutional responsibility to protect the country, protect the citizens and protect the country from disintegration. Therefore, the country has the right to use power against those who try to destroy the state. And when our military engages in military operations, they limit themselves to moral ethics, especially in urban areas.
Al Jazeera: Are you in control down to the last detail? Is that a message that has been passed on to your armed forces – to protect civilians in conflict?
Al Burhan: The Sudanese military is fully committed to international law and soldiers who violate such laws are duly punished.
Al Jazeera: Who do you think can help the most to resolve the situation? International bodies? Countries like the United States or Saudi Arabia? African diplomats?
Al Burhan: We believe that the talks in Jeddah produced tangible results and if the other side had committed to what we agreed, we would be in a different position today. There is a call to expand the Jeddah forum. We are not against that and South Africa can be part of that forum.
Al Jazeera: You have committed to forming a transitional government as a step toward forging a full democracy, a civilian democracy, while this conflict continues. Is it possible to establish a timeline for such a step?
Al Burhan: Yes, we believe that once we reach a ceasefire, we will, after a short transition period, launch a comprehensive political process to restore peace and prepare for elections.
Al Jazeera: To what extent is it a problem in achieving this democracy to bring together elements of the Rapid Support Forces in the Sudanese army, because this is going to be an essential process in guaranteeing the formula of the national unity model?
Al Burhan: We have never refused to integrate them into the army. Not the rebels, but anyone who wants to join the national army will be welcome.
Al Jazeera: The people of Sudan came together to overthrow Omar al-Bashir. What message do you have for them now?
Al Burhan: Our Sudanese people experienced a great revolution in 2019. They have dreams, they have ambitions. They want to enjoy freedom, peace and security. The military will not hinder their ambitions. Sudanese youth dream of a civil state. The army will not stand in their way. The Sudanese people deserve to have their revolution restored and to enjoy peace, security and prosperity.
Al Jazeera: So you believe that the dreams of young people are still possible?
Al Burhan: I hope so.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.