Sudan rivals pledge evacuation help, US diplomats airlifted

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American embassy staffers were airlifted from Sudan early Sunday, as forces loyal to rival generals battled for control of Africa’s third-largest nation for a ninth day amid fading hopes for deescalation.

The warring sides said they were helping coordinate the evacuation of foreigners, though continued exchanges of fire in Sudan’s capital undermined those claims.

A senior Biden administration official said U.S. troops are carrying out the precarious evacuation of U.S. Embassy staffers. The troops who airlifted the staff out of Khartoum have safely left Sudanese airspace, a second U.S. official confirmed.

The Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, which has been battling the Sudanese army, said the U.S. rescue mission involved six aircraft and that it had coordinated evacuation efforts with the U.S.

But the U.S. denied the group did anything to help the evacuation.

“You may have seen some assertions in social media in recent hours, that the Rapid Security Forces somehow coordinated with us and supported this operation. That was not the case,” said Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass. “They cooperated to the extent that they did not fire on our service members in the course of the operation.”

The RSF, led by Gen. Mohammed Hamad Dagolo, said it is cooperating with all diplomatic missions and that it is committed to a three-day cease-fire that was declared at sundown Friday.

Earlier, army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan said he would facilitate the evacuation of American, British, Chinese and French citizens and diplomats from Sudan after speaking with the leaders of several countries that had requested help.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said Sunday that France was organizing the evacuation of its embassy staff, French citizens in Sudan and citizens of allied countries. She said France was organizing the operation “in connection with all the involved parties, as well as with our European partners and allies.”

However, the situation on the ground remains volatile. Most major airports have become battlegrounds and movement out of the capital has proven intensely dangerous. The two rivals have dug in, signaling they would resume the fighting after the declared three-day truce.

Questions have swirled over how the mass rescues of foreign citizens would unfold, with Sudan’s main international airport closed and millions of people sheltering indoors. As battles between the Sudanese army and the powerful paramilitary group rage in and around Khartoum, including in residential areas, foreign countries have struggled to repatriate their citizens — many trapped in their homes as food supplies dwindle.

The White House would not confirm the Sudanese military’s announcement. “We have made very clear to both sides that they are responsible for ensuring the protection of civilians and noncombatants,” the National Security Council said. On Friday, the U.S. said it had no plans for a government-coordinated evacuation of the estimated 16,000 American citizens trapped in Sudan.

Saudi Arabia announced the successful repatriation of some of its citizens on Saturday, sharing footage of Saudi nationals and other foreigners welcomed with chocolate and flowers as they stepped off an apparent evacuation ship at the Saudi port of Jeddah.

Officials did not elaborate on exactly how the rescue unfolded but Burhan said the Saudi diplomats and nationals had first traveled by land to Port Sudan, the country’s main seaport on the Red Sea. He said that Jordan’s diplomats would soon be evacuated in the same way. The port is in Sudan’s far east, some 840 kilometers (520 miles) from Khartoum.

President Joe Biden ordered American troops to evacuate embassy personnel after receiving a recommendation earlier Saturday from his national security team with no end in sight to the fighting, according to the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the mission.

The evacuation order was believed to apply to about 70 Americans. U.S. forces were flying them from a landing zone at the embassy to an unspecified location.

With the U.S. focused on evacuating diplomats first, the Pentagon said it was moving additional troops and equipment to a Naval base in the tiny Gulf of Aden nation of Djibouti to prepare for the effort.

Burhan told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite channel on Saturday that flights in and out of Khartoum remained risky because of the ongoing clashes. He claimed that the military had regained control over all the other airports in the country, except for one in the southwestern city of Nyala.

“We share the international community’s concern about foreign nationals,” he said, promising Sudan would provide “necessary airports and safe passageways” for foreigners trapped in the fighting, without elaborating.

Two cease-fire attempts earlier this week also rapidly collapsed. The turmoil has dealt a perhaps fatal blow to hopes for the country’s transition to a civilian-led democracy and raised concerns the chaos could draw in its neighbors, including Chad, Egypt and Libya.

“The war has been continuous since day one. It has not stopped for one moment,” said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, secretary of the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate, which monitors casualties.

The clashes have killed over 400 people so far, according to the World Health Organization. The bombardments, gunbattles and sniper fire in densely populated areas have hit civilian infrastructure, including many hospitals. Internet-access advocacy group NetBlocks.org said Sunday there was a “near-total collapse of internet connectivity.”

The international airport near the center of the capital has come under heavy shelling as the RSF has tried to take control of the compound. In an apparent effort to oust the RSF fighters, the Sudanese army has pounded the airport with airstrikes, gutting at least one runway and leaving wrecked planes scattered on the tarmac. The full extent of damage at the airfield remains unclear.

The conflict has opened a dangerous new chapter in Sudan’s history, thrusting the country into uncertainty.

“No one can predict when and how this war will end,” Burhan told the Al-Hadath news channel. “I am currently in the command center and will only leave it in a coffin.”

The current explosion of violence came after Burhan and Dagalo fell out over a recent internationally brokered deal with democracy activists that was meant to incorporate the RSF into the military and eventually lead to civilian rule.

The rival generals rose to power in the tumultuous aftermath of popular uprisings that led to the ouster of Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019. Two years later, they joined forces to seize power in a coup that ousted the civilian leaders.

Both the military and RSF have a long history of human rights abuses. The RSF was born out of the Janjaweed militias, which were accused of atrocities in crushing a rebellion in Sudan’s western Darfur region in the early 2000s.

Many Sudanese fear that despite the generals’ repeated promises, the violence will only escalate as tens of thousands of foreign citizens try to leave.

“We are sure both sides of fighting are more careful about foreign lives than the lives of Sudanese citizens,” Atiya said.

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