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Diplomats flee Sudan's fighting as citizens struggle to escape

In this image from video provided by the French Armed Forces, military personnel load belongings of evacuees onto a plane at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sunday.
French Armed Forces via AP
In this image from video provided by the French Armed Forces, military personnel load belongings of evacuees onto a plane at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sunday.

Updated April 23, 2023 at 8:03 PM ET

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Foreign governments evacuated diplomats, staff and others from Sudan on Sunday as rival generals battled for a ninth day with no sign of a truce that had been declared for a major Muslim holiday.

While world powers like the U.S. and Britain airlifted their diplomats from the capital of Khartoum, Sudanese desperately sought to flee the chaos. Many risked dangerous roads to cross the northern border into Egypt.

"My family — my mother, my siblings and my nephews — are on the road from Sudan to Cairo through Aswan," prominent Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abual-Ala wrote on Facebook.

Fighting raged in Omdurman, a city across the Nile River from Khartoum, residents said, despite a hoped-for cease-fire to coincide with the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

"We did not see such a truce," Amin al-Tayed said from his home near state TV headquarters in Omdurman, adding that heavy gunfire and thundering explosions rocked the city.

Over 420 people, including 264 civilians, have been killed and over 3,700 wounded in fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces. The RSF said the armed forces unleashed airstrikes on the upscale neighborhood of Kafouri, north of Khartoum. There was no immediate army comment.

The ongoing violence has affected operations at the main international airport, destroying civilian planes and damaging at least one runway, and thick, black smoke rose above it. Other airports also have been knocked out of operation.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted he had spoken with the rival commanders, urging an immediate cease-fire to protect civilians and the evacuation of EU citizens.

In this photo provided by Maheen S, smoke fills the sky in Khartoum, Sudan, near Doha International Hospital on Friday.
/ AP
/
AP
In this photo provided by Maheen S, smoke fills the sky in Khartoum, Sudan, near Doha International Hospital on Friday.

In other fighting, a senior military official said it repelled an RSF attack on Kober Prison in Khartoum where Sudan's longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, and former officials in his movement have been held since his 2019 ouster. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said a number of prisoners fled but al-Bashir and other high-profile inmates were in a "highly secure" area, adding that "a few prisoners" were killed or wounded.

The RSF claimed the military removed al-Bashir and other prisoners from the facility, although the statement could not be independently confirmed.

The Arqin border crossing with Egypt was crowded with about 30 passenger buses of at least 55 people each, said Suliman al-Kouni, an Egyptian student who fled northward from Khartoum with dozens of other students.

"We traveled 15 hours on land at our own risk," al-Kouni told The Associated Press by phone. "But many of our friends are still trapped in Sudan."

Sudan experienced a "near-total collapse" of internet and phone service Sunday, according to the monitoring service NetBlocks.

"It's possible that infrastructure has been damaged or sabotaged," said Netblocks director Alp Toker. "This will have a major effect on residents' ability to stay safe and will impact the evacuation programs that are ongoing."

After a week of battles that hindered rescues, U.S. special forces swiftly evacuated 70 U.S. Embassy staffers from Khartoum to Ethiopia early Sunday. Although American officials said it was too dangerous for a government-coordinated evacuation of thousands of private citizens, other countries scrambled to remove their citizens as well as their diplomats.

France and Italy said they would accommodate all their citizens who want to leave, as well as those of other countries who could not otherwise join an evacuation operation.

Germany said early Monday that a military plane carrying 101 German diplomatic staff, family members and citizens of partner countries who were evacuated from Sudan via Jordan has landed safely in Berlin. The military said it had brought 311 people to Jordan so far, from where an onward journey is being organized.

A Dutch air force C-130 Hercules flew out of Sudan to Jordan early Monday carrying evacuees of various nationalities, including Dutch. The French Foreign Ministry said Monday it has so far brought four flights from Sudan to Djibouti, with a total of 388 people — citizens of 28 countries of Europe, Asia, North America and Africa, including Sudan.

An Italian air force C-130 that left Khartoum with evacuees landed Sunday night at an air base in Djibouti, the Defense Ministry said. Another plane, carrying Italy's ambassador and military personnel involved in the evacuation, was expected in Djibouti later in the night.

About 100 people were flown out of Khartoum by Spanish military aircraft — more than 30 Spaniards and the rest from Portugal, Italy, Poland, Ireland, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina, the foreign ministry said.

Officials in Jordan said four planes landed at Amman military airport carrying 343 Jordanian evacuees from Port Sudan. Other flights from Sudan were organized by Greece and the Netherlands.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that U.K. armed forces evacuated British diplomatic staff and dependents "amid a significant escalation in violence and threats."

Overland travel through contested areas was possible but dangerous. Khartoum is about 840 kilometers (520 miles) from Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Smoke is seen in Khartoum, Sudan, on Saturday. The fighting in the capital between the Sudanese Army and Rapid Support Forces resumed after an internationally brokered cease-fire failed.
Marwan Ali / AP
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AP
Smoke is seen in Khartoum, Sudan, on Saturday. The fighting in the capital between the Sudanese Army and Rapid Support Forces resumed after an internationally brokered cease-fire failed.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia said it evacuated 157 people, including 91 Saudi nationals and citizens of other countries. Saudi state TV showed a large convoy of cars and buses from Khartoum to Port Sudan, where a navy ship took them to the Saudi port of Jeddah.

Fighters attacked a U.S. Embassy convoy last week, and stormed the home of the EU ambassador. Violence wounded an Egyptian Embassy employee in Sudan, according to Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zaid.

Egypt, which said it had over 10,000 citizens in Sudan, urged those in cities other than Khartoum to head to consular offices in Port Sudan and Wadi Halfa in the north for evacuation, the state-run MENA news agency reported.

The power struggle between the Sudanese military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the RSF, led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, has dealt a harsh blow to Sudan's hopes for a democratic transition. The rival generals came to power after a pro-democracy uprising led to the ouster of the former strongman, al-Bashir. In 2021, the generals joined forces to seize power in a coup.

The current violence comes from a falling out between two generals

The current 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.

Both generals, each craving international legitimacy, have accused the other of obstructing the evacuations. The Sudanese military alleged the RSF opened fire on a French convoy, wounding a French national. The RSF countered it came under attack by warplanes as French citizens and diplomats left the embassy for Omdurman, saying the military's strikes "endangered the lives of French nationals."

Hospitals have struggled as violence rages. Many wounded are stranded by the fighting, according to the Sudan Doctors' Syndicate that monitors casualties, suggesting the death toll is probably higher than what is known.

The Italian medical group Emergency said 46 of its staff refused to leave, working in hospitals in Khartoum, Nyala and Port Sudan.

Thousands of Sudanese have fled fighting in Khartoum and elsewhere, U.N. agencies said, but millions are sheltering in their homes amid explosions, gunfire and looting without adequate electricity, food or water.

In the western region of Darfur, up to 20,000 people left for neighboring Chad. War is not new to Darfur, where ethnically motivated violence has killed up to 300,000 people since 2003. But Sudan is not used to such heavy fighting in its capital, which "has become a ghost city," said Atiya Abdalla Atiya of the Doctors' Syndicate.

Khalid Omar, a spokesman for the pro-democracy bloc that seeks to restore civilian rule, urged both generals to resolve their differences. "There is an opportunity to stop this war and put the county on the right path," he wrote on Facebook. "This is a war fueled by groups from the deposed regime who want it to continue."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press