Evidence of Iranian and UAE drones used in the war in Sudan

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Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been accused of violating a UN arms embargo by supplying drones to warring sides in the 14-month conflict that has devastated Sudan. We look at the evidence that supports the claim.

On the morning of March 12, 2024, Sudanese government soldiers celebrated an unprecedented military advance. They had finally recaptured the state broadcaster’s headquarters in the capital Khartoum.

Like most of the city, the building had fallen into the hands of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) at the outbreak of the civil war eleven months earlier.

What was striking about this military victory for the army was that videos showed that the attack was carried out using Iranian-made drones.

According to Suliman Baldo, director of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Observatory, the army was dependent on the air force in the early stages of the war.

“The armed forces found that all their preferred forces were under siege, and they had no forces on the ground,” he said.

The RSF maintained ground control over most of Khartoum and Darfur in western Sudan, while the army maintained its air presence.

In early January 2024, a video of an army drone shot down by the RSF appeared on Twitter.

According to Wim Zwijnenburg, a drone expert and head of the Humanitarian Disarmament Project at the Dutch peace organization PAX, the wreckage, engine and tail resembled an Iranian-made drone called Mohajer-6.

The Mohajer-6 is 6.5 meters long, can fly up to 2,000 km and can carry out air strikes with guided free-fall munitions.

Mr Zwijnenburg identified a different version of the drone in a satellite image of the army’s Wadi Seidna military base, north of Khartoum, taken three days later.

“These drones are highly effective because they can accurately identify targets with minimal training,” he says.

Three weeks after the Mohajer-6 was shot down, video emerged of another drone downed by the RSF.

Mr Zwijnenburg linked this to the Zajil-3 – a locally manufactured version of the Iranian Ababil-3 drone.

The Zajil-3 drones have been used in Sudan for years. But January was the first time they were deployed in this war, as observed by the BBC and PAX.

In March, Mr Zwijnenburg identified another version of the Zajil-3, captured on a satellite image of Wadi Seidna.

“(It is) an indication of active Iranian support for the Sudanese army,” he said, although the Sudanese Governing Council has denied acquiring weapons from Iran.

“If these drones are equipped with guided munitions, it means that they were supplied by Iran, because that munition is not produced in Sudan,” Zwijnenburg added.

In early December, a Boeing 747 passenger plane operated by Iranian cargo carrier Qeshm Fars Air took off from Iran’s Bandar Abbas Airport towards the Red Sea before disappearing from radar.

Hours later, satellites captured an image of a plane of the same type at Port Sudan airport in the east of the country, where Sudanese army officials are stationed.

A photo of the same plane on the runway later circulated on Twitter.

This flight was repeated five times until the end of January, the same month in which the use of Iranian drones was documented.

Qeshm Fars Air is facing US sanctions over numerous allegations of transporting weapons and fighters across the Middle East, particularly to Syria, one of Iran’s key allies.

Sudan had a long history of military cooperation with Iran before relations ended in 2016 due to a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Sudan siding with Saudi Arabia.

“Many Sudanese weapons were locally made versions of Iranian models,” said Baldo of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Observatory.

Since the start of the current conflict, the Sudanese government has restored relations with Tehran.

According to Mr Baldo, each party has its own objectives.

“Iran is looking to gain a foothold in the region. If they find geostrategic concessions, they will certainly provide more advanced and numerous drones,” he said.

The BBC has contacted the Sudanese military, the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Qeshm Fars Air for comment on allegations that Iranian drones are being used in the conflict, but has received no response.

But in an interview with the BBC, Malik Agar, vice president of the Sovereign Council of Sudan, said: “We do not receive weapons from any party. Guns are available on the black market, and the black market is gray now.”

Meanwhile, evidence emerged early in the war that the RSF had used quadcopter drones made from commercial components that could deliver 120mm mortar shells.

Images and footage on social media show that the military has shot down many of these drones.

Brian Castner, a weapons expert at Amnesty International, points the finger at the UAE.

“The UAE has provided its allies with the same drones in other conflict zones such as Ethiopia and Yemen,” he said.

According to a UN report presented to the Security Council earlier this year, aviation tracking experts observed a civilian aircraft airlift allegedly transporting weapons from the UAE to the RSF – a claim the UAE denies .

The route starts from Abu Dhabi Airport, passes through Nairobi and Kampala airports and ends at Amdjarass Airport in Chad, a few kilometers from Sudan’s western border, and Darfur, where the RSF has its stronghold.

The UN report also quotes local sources and military groups as reporting that vehicles carrying weapons are unloading planes at Amdjarass airport several times a week before traveling to Darfur and the rest of Sudan.

“The UAE also has economic interests in Sudan and is trying to gain a foothold in the Red Sea,” Baldo said.

The UAE has repeatedly denied that these flights were carrying weapons, saying they were delivering humanitarian aid instead. In a statement, a government official told the BBC that the UAE is committed to seeking “a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict.”

The RSF did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

The drones, which both sides in the civil war are said to have imported, violate a 2005 UN Security Council resolution banning the supply of weapons to the Sudanese government and armed groups in Darfur.

“The Security Council must take responsibility and take into account the situation of Sudan, the impending famine and the number of deaths and displacements, and immediately enforce a comprehensive arms embargo against all of Sudan,” Castner said.

Since the appearance of drones in Sudanese airspace, the situation on the ground has partly changed.

The Sudanese army has managed to break the siege of its soldiers in several locations.

And the RSF has withdrawn from some neighborhoods west of the capital.

According to Mr Baldo, this change has come about thanks to the Iranian drones.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), at least 16,650 civilians have been killed after more than a year of war.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that twelve million people have been displaced from their homes – more than in any other current conflict.

Abdullah Makkawi is someone who has now fled to Egypt. While in southern Khartoum last July, he said he narrowly escaped death when drones, which he said belonged to the RSF, attacked.

“I rushed into the house and we took refuge in a room with a concrete roof… My mother, four siblings and I hid under the beds,” he says.

Mr Makkawi says they heard the sound of a drone grenade falling on the next room, which had a wooden roof.

‘If we had been in the other room we would all have been killed. By some miracle we survived,” he said.

In early 2024, the conflict spread to new areas outside the capital. For the first time, civilian deaths from drone strikes were reported in northern, eastern and central Sudan.

Before fleeing to Egypt, Mr Makkawi left his family in Port Sudan as he considered it a safe place. But now he fears that drones could reach them there too.

“The Sudanese are tired of the war. All we want is for the war to stop. If foreign countries stop supporting both sides with weapons, it will end.”

More about the civil war in Sudan from the BBC:

A woman looks at her mobile phone and the BBC News Africa graphicA woman looks at her mobile phone and the BBC News Africa graphic

(Getty Images/BBC)

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