Some foreign nationals began evacuating from a Red Sea port in Sudan on Saturday, even as airstrikes again rocked the capital, Khartoum, after a week of fighting between rival commanders that has killed hundreds of civilians across the country.
Canadian citizens are reported to be among those who have escaped Sudan to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said its Royal Navy forces carried out an evacuation operation, transporting 91 citizens and 66 people from “brotherly and friendly” countries — including Canadians — from the Port of Sudan, on the Red Sea coast, to Jeddah.
The statement, posted on social media, did not say how many Canadian passport holders may have been on board the flight. CBC News has reached out to Global Affairs Canada for confirmation.
The Canadian government is also preparing for the possibility of removing embassy staff from the country.
Department of National Defence (DND) spokesperson Caroline Elie said Global Affairs Canada asked the Canadian Armed Forces to “provide military expertise and advice” and to help develop support options for Canadian-based staff at the embassy in Khartoum.
“Specifically, this includes planning in the event the situation permits the evacuation of Canadian Embassy staff,” she said in an email to CBC News.
Elie said a Canadian Armed Forces strategic advisory team and military liaison officers are deploying to the region to connect with other partner nations considering diplomatic evacuation operations.
But she said DND could not release further details at this time and “won’t speculate about potential operations in order to protect the security of those in the region.”
In a Friday night statement, Canada’s foreign affairs and national defence ministers said they were “actively monitoring the situation in Sudan.”
“In response to recent developments, Canada has deployed members of Global Affairs Canada’s Standing Rapid Deployment Team to Djibouti to enhance our ability to support and to further assess the needs on the ground,” Mélanie Joly and Anita Anand said in the joint statement.
The Canadian Embassy in Khartoum has temporarily suspended in-person operations. Canadians in need of emergency assistance are encouraged to call Global Affairs Canada’s emergency response centre.
Trapped inside for days
There are nearly 1,600 Canadians who are registered as being in Sudan, according to Global Affairs Canada, though registration is voluntary and the number of Canadian citizens and permanent residents in the country may be higher.
Canadians remaining in Sudan have been advised to shelter in place and to stay away from windows and keep doors locked at all times, as well as to keep phones charged and ensure passports and travel documents are secure.
Saydah Mustafa, a Sudanese Canadian medical student studying in Khartoum, told CBC News that she and her sister have been trapped in their home for the past week. She said fighting broke out shortly after she returned home from an exam and she hasn’t been able to leave since.
“We’ve kind of just been living off of what my parents [who are in Saudi Arabia] bought us. Thankfully, a few days before that, my parents sent us a care package that included all kinds of basic packaged foods [and] canned foods that we’re living off of,” she said, adding they may have enough to last another week or two at most.
Mustafa said the situation is traumatizing and that she and her sister have stayed sheltered in parts of the home away from windows, but it’s impossible to avoid the sounds of gunfire, fighter jets and airstrikes.
“The building shakes whenever a bomb goes off nearby,” she said.
Mustafa said she began reaching out for Canadian consular support within the first few days of the fighting, but officials have not provided any advice on leaving the country because services are limited and the airports are closed.
Sudanese army to assist foreign evacuations
Foreign countries have struggled to repatriate their citizens as the bloody onslaught of urban warfare has trapped large numbers in the Sudanese capital. Khartoum’s airport has been repeatedly targeted, and many residents have been unable to leave their homes or get out of the city to safer areas.
Battles between the Sudanese army and rival paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have raged in and around Khartoum, an throughout the country, since April 15.
Sudan’s army said on Saturday that it was helping to evacuate foreign nationals from the country, even as its forces battled paramilitary rivals in Khartoum, including with airstrikes.
The statement citing army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan came after promises by RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, to open airports for evacuations.
Burhan “agreed to provide the necessary assistance to secure such evacuations for various countries,” the military said.
The RSF said it was ready to partially open all airports to allow evacuations. However, Khartoum’s international airport has been caught in fighting, and the status of other airports or RSF’s control over them is unclear.
The Current16:34Fears of a civil war spread in Sudan
Fighting continues despite holiday truce
The army and the paramilitary RSF had both issued statements saying they would uphold a three-day ceasefire from Friday for Islam’s Eid al-Fitr holiday.
But sounds of fighting continued overnight, although they appeared less intense on Saturday morning than on the previous day, a Reuters journalist in Khartoum said. Live broadcasts by regional news channels showed rising smoke and the thud of blasts.
International efforts to quell the violence have focused on the ceasefire, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on them to honour the truce.
Joly, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, said in a Twitter post on Saturday that she had been in contact with her Kenyan counterpart to discuss support for regional efforts to resolve the situation.
I spoke with my Kenyan counterpart, Cabinet Secretary <a href=”https://twitter.com/DrAlfredMutua?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@DrAlfredMutua</a>, to discuss the crisis in Sudan. <br><br>Canada is ready to support regional efforts to resolve the conflict and we welcome Kenya’s leadership in working to facilitate mediation.
The violence was triggered by disagreement over an internationally backed plan to form a new civilian government four years after the fall of autocrat Omar al-Bashir and two years after the military coup.
Burhan and Hemedti had held the top two positions on a ruling council overseeing a political transition after the coup that was meant to include a move to civilian rule and the RSF’s merger into the army. Both sides accuse the other of thwarting the transition.
The World Health Organization reported on Friday that 413 people had been killed and 3,551 injured since fighting broke out. The death toll includes at least five aid workers in a country reliant on food aid.
The Sudanese doctors union said early on Saturday that more than two-thirds of hospitals in conflict areas were out of service, with 32 forcibly evacuated by soldiers or caught in crossfire.
Some of the remaining hospitals, which lack adequate water, staff and electricity, were providing only first aid. People posted urgent requests on social media for medical assistance, transport to hospital and prescription medication.
Doctors Without Borders appealed for safe passage to supply hospitals and allow medical staff to work freely.
Thousands of Sudanese flee to Chad
The head of the United Nations World Food Program in neighbouring Chad said it expects to see more refugees fleeing across the border from Sudan to escape the fighting in Darfur, where some of the worst violence has been reported outside Khartoum.
About 10,000 to 20,000 Sudanese have already crossed the border into Chad a week after the fighting began in Khartoum and other areas of the country.
“The World Food Program is going to prepare to welcome at least 100,000. It is probable that there could be more, so we have to be ready,” Pierre Honnorat, the program’s director in Chad, told Reuters on Friday.
He added that most of those who arrived in recent days from villages along the border were women and children.
“We were surprised to see so many children crossing. It was heartbreaking to see the women and children under trees. Some of them have suffered some violence, their houses burnt, their villages destroyed and their neighbourhoods completely looted,” he said.
Honnorat said there is an immediate necessity to provide enough drinking water in the arid desert region.