July 15, 2024

Under the guise of saving refugees, the United Arab Emirates is running an elaborate covert operation to back one side in Sudan’s spiraling war — supplying powerful weapons and drones, treating injured fighters and airlifting the most serious cases to one of its military hospitals, according to a dozen current and former officials from the United States, Europe and several African countries.

The operation is based at an airfield and a hospital in a remote town across the Sudanese border in Chad, where cargo planes from the Emirates have been landing on a near-daily basis since June, according to satellite imagery and the officials, who spoke on the basis of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

It is the latest example of how the Emirates, an American ally in the Persian Gulf, has been using its vast wealth and sophisticated armory to position itself as a key player and sometimes kingmaker across Africa.

In Sudan, the evidence suggests it is backing the Rapid Support Forces, or R.S.F., a powerful paramilitary group that has been linked to the Russian mercenary group Wagner and accused of atrocities. The R.S.F. has been battling the nation’s regular military in a civil war that has left 5,000 civilians dead and displaced more than four million people since April.

The Emiratis, however, insist that their operation at the border with Sudan is purely humanitarian.

Since planes began to arrive in the Chadian town, Amdjarass, the Emirati state news agency has published images of the gleaming field hospital where, it says, over 6,000 patients have been treated since July. Videos show Emirati officials dropping aid packages outside straw huts in nearby villages, donating goats and renovating schools. They have even organized a camel race.

Their motive, the Emiratis say, is to help Sudanese refugees, many fleeing brutal ethnic violence in the Darfur region. But since Sudan plunged into war, barely 250 refugees have registered in Amdjarass, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The refugee emergency is actually a few hundred miles to the south, a two-day drive over desert and dirt roads, where 420,000 recently arrived Sudanese are crammed into sprawling camps amid desperate conditions.

In fact, the United Arab Emirates is using its aid mission to disguise its military support for the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, known as Hemeti, a onetime militia commander from Darfur with a reputation for ruthlessness, and longstanding ties to the Emirates.

“The Emiratis see Hemeti as their guy,” said a former senior U.S. official. “We’ve seen it elsewhere — they take one guy, then back him all the way.”

As an increasingly active player on the African continent, the Emirates has signed business deals worth tens of billions of dollars to develop mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for carbon credits in Liberia and to control ports in Tanzania, Somalia and Sudan.

In eastern Libya, the Emirates armed the warlord Khalifa Hifter in contravention of an international arms embargo. In Ethiopia, it supplied Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with armed drones at a crucial moment in the Tigray conflict in 2021, effectively turning the tide of the war.

In Sudan, the Emirates is formally pushing for peace. As a member of the Quad, a diplomatic grouping including the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia, it is trying to broker a negotiated end to the conflict. Meanwhile, Emirati weapons are fueling the conflict.

In recent weeks, General Hamdan’s fighters have used Kornet anti-tank missiles, supplied by the Emirates, to assault a fortified Armored Corps base in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, U.S. and Sudanese officials said.

The Emirati foreign ministry did not respond to a list of questions but has previously denied providing support for either side in the war in Sudan.

The covert operation in Sudan has jarred American officials already discomfited by the Emirates’ growing ties with Russia and China. Its hawkish ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, hosts 5,000 U.S. military personnel in his wealthy petrostate. But his efforts in Sudan align Sheikh Mohammed with General Hamdan’s other foreign sponsor, Russia’s Wagner mercenaries.

An unpublished report by U.N. investigators, submitted to the Security Council and obtained by The Times, details how General Hamdan obtained surface-to-air missiles from bases in the neighboring Central African Republic in April and May. Wagner provided the missiles, a U.N. official said. They were used to shoot down several Sudanese fighter jets, two Sudanese officials said.

The Rapid Support Forces did not respond to questions for this article but recently denied “any association with the Wagner Group.”

Asked about the Emirati activities in Amdjarass, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the United States had raised concerns “with all external actors that are suspected of supplying either side of the conflict in Sudan, including the U.A.E.”

For Sudanese critics, the Emirati meddling represents an outrageous duality — a country that talks of peace while fueling war, and that claims to be helping Sudanese refugees while supporting the fighters that forced them to flee in the first place.

“It makes me angry and frustrated,” said Husam Mahjoub, the co-founder of Sudan Bukra, an independent Sudanese media company. “We’ve seen this before in countries like Libya and Yemen: The U.A.E. says it wants peace and stability, while at the same time doing everything to work against it.”

The operation in Amdjarass began in earnest in mid-June, about two months after the war started for control of Sudan.

That month, President Mahamat Idriss Déby of Chad met with the Emirati leader, Sheikh Mohammed, at one of his palaces in Abu Dhabi. Mr. Déby left with a loan for $1.5 billion (Chad’s annual budget is $1.8 billion) and promises of military vehicles that were delivered in August.

Days later, Emirati cargo planes began to stream into Amdjarass, a tiny oasis town with few inhabitants but an unusually long airstrip. The Times has identified dozens of flights into Amdjarass since May.

Mr. Déby’s father, Idriss, who ruled Chad for three decades, was born in Amdjarass and frequently hosted foreign dignitaries there, building an airport nearby that boasted the nation’s longest runway.

On July 4, after a flight tracker known as Gerjon publicized the sudden surge in Emirati flights to Amdjarass, the Emirates announced it had opened a 50-bed hospital on the edge of the runway. More news releases followed, highlighting Emirati aid distributions.

“A new milestone in U.A.E.’s bright record of giving,” read one news release.

But there were also signs of dissent. A video circulated on social media showing local tribesmen protesting the new Emirati base. “This is not a civilian hospital,” one declared, adding that the Emiratis were supporting the R.S.F. with logistics and weapons. Then he burned an Emirati flag.

Those accusations had merit. In one part of the hospital, African officials said, Emirati medics were treating wounded Rapid Support Forces fighters. Some were later airlifted to Abu Dhabi for treatment at the Zayed military hospital.

At the same time, satellite imagery and flight tracking data show, Amdjarass airport was expanding into a bustling, military-style airfield that seemed to exceed the needs of its small hospital. Two temporary aircraft shelters and a hangar were constructed. The hospital compound expanded. Fuel storage bladders were set up.

Soil was graded in a large area south of the runway, indicating a potential new area where planes could be parked.

Many of the cargo planes landing at Amdjarass had previously transported weapons for the Emirates to other conflict zones. An Ilyushin plane registered to Fly Sky Airlines, which U.N. investigators have accused of breaching the arms embargo on Libya, was suspected of delivering drones to Ethiopia in 2021.

A Times analysis found that the pattern of airfield construction resembles a drone base built by the Emirates at Al Khadim, in eastern Libya, in 2016. (Most recently, Wagner mercenaries were stationed there.)

From Amdjarass, the weapons are driven 150 miles east to Zurug, the main R.S.F. base at General Hamdan’s fief in North Darfur, according to Sudanese, Chadian and U.N. officials. An elder with a Sudanese border tribe said the R.S.F. had approached his group this summer to ensure safe passage for road convoys from the border to Zurug.

The airfield continues to expand. The Times obtained nighttime satellite imagery from late August that detected lights at the apron, taxiway and runway, suggesting preparations for future operations shielded from daytime satellite photography.

“The Emirates has done more than anyone else to sustain the R.S.F., and to prolong the conflict in Sudan,” said Cameron Hudson, a former C.I.A. analyst on Africa now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But, he added, “they don’t do it with a lot of fingerprints, and that’s intentional.”

The Emirati relationship with General Hamdan began in the Middle East. In 2018, the Emirates paid the Sudanese militia leader handsomely to send thousands of fighters to southern Yemen, as part of the Emirates’ grinding military campaign against Houthi rebels in the north.

That campaign enriched General Hamdan and helped make the R.S.F. even more powerful inside Sudan. As he built a business empire on gold mining, he moved his proceeds to Dubai, where his younger brother, Algoney Hamdan Dagalo, established companies to manage the family interests.

Why the Emirates has chosen to double down on General Hamdan now, despite growing evidence of wartime atrocities, has puzzled many Western officials and analysts.

Like many gulf countries, the Emirates sees Sudan as a potential source of food, and covets a position on its Red Sea coastline. In December, the Emirates signed a $6 billion deal to develop a port 125 miles north of Port Sudan.

Middle East rivalries are a factor, too. Tensions between the Emirates and Egypt, which backs Sudan’s military, and Saudi Arabia, which is leading diplomatic efforts to end the Sudan war, are steadily rising, diplomats say.

And as much as anything, analysts say, Sheikh Mohammed may be simply sticking by a loyal ally.

Sudanese refugees continue to stream into Chad at a rate of 2,000 per day, aid workers say. Most arrive in Adré, an impoverished border town too far for help from the Emirati base nearly 200 miles to the north.

Reporting was contributed by Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Eman El-Sherbiny from Cairo; Haley Willis from New York; Malachy Browne from Limerick, Ireland; and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

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