U.S. diplomats airlifted from Sudan, Saudis say they removed some Canadians


U.S. 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 de-escalation.

Saudi Arabia also said it helped some Canadians escape the country through the Port of Sudan on Saturday.

The Sudanese army and a powerful military group have been engaged in intense fighting for more than a week 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. 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.

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

A senior Biden administration official said U.S. troops are carrying out the precarious removal 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 co-ordinated evacuation efforts with the U.S.

Many countries looking to get citizens out

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 co-ordinated with us and supported this operation. That was not the case,” said Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass. “They co-operated to the extent that they did not fire on our service members in the course of the operation.”

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, led by Gen. Mohammed Hamad Dagolo, said it is co-operating with all diplomatic missions and that it is committed to a three-day ceasefire that was declared at sundown Friday.

People flee their neighbourhoods in Khartoum on April 19. (AFP via Getty Images)

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 spokesperson 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 Khartoum has proven intensely dangerous. The two rivals have dug in, signalling they would resume the fighting after the declared three-day truce.

Saudi Arabia says it helped Canadians escape

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-co-ordinated evacuation of the estimated 16,000 American citizens trapped in Sudan.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said Saturday 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 involved. CBC News has reached out to Global Affairs Canada for confirmation.

Saudi officials did not elaborate on exactly how the rescue unfolded but Burhan said the Saudi diplomats and nationals had first travelled by land to Port Sudan, the country’s main seaport on the Red Sea. some 840 kilometres from Khartoum.

U.S. 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.

2 failed ceasefires

With the U.S. focused on moving 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.

Two men, each in separate photos and apparently gesturing to onlookers, wear army uniforms and raise swagger sticks.
This composite shows General Abdel Fattah Burhan, left, the head of Sudan’s ruling military council, and Sudanese paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo in Sudan at separate events in June 2019. (Yasuyoshi Chiba and Ashraf Shazly/Getty Images)

Two ceasefire 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 neighbours, including Chad, Egypt and Libya.

“The war has been continuous since Day 1. It has not stopped for one moment,” said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, secretary of the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate, which monitors casualties.

The clashes have killed more than 400 people so far, according to the World Health Organization. The bombardments, gun battles 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.”

Airport heavily damaged

The international airport near the centre of Khartoum 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 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 centre 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.

Three men hold guns and gesture toward the camera in a dirt-covered area with a vehicle and a building in the background.
Sudanese army soldiers, loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah Burhan, pose for a picture in Port Sudan on April 16. (AFP/Getty Images)
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