Some foreign nationals have begun evacuating from Sudan as the bloody fighting that has engulfed the vast African nation enters its second week.
The bloody onslaught of urban warfare has trapped large numbers in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The airport has been repeatedly targeted and many residents have been unable to leave their homes or get out of the city to safer areas.
The United Nations and foreign states have urged rival military leaders to honour declared ceasefires that have mostly been ignored, and to open safe passage both for fleeing civilians and for the supply of badly needed aid.
With the airport closed and skies unsafe, thousands of foreigners – including embassy staff, aid workers and students in Khartoum and elsewhere in Africa’s third largest country – have also been unable to get out.
The Sudanese army said on Saturday that it would facilitate the evacuation of American, British, Chinese and French citizens and diplomats from Sudan, while Saudi Arabia and Jordan were already evacuating via Port Sudan on the Red Sea. It said airports in Khartoum and Darfur’s biggest city Nyala were problematic.
By late Saturday afternoon, Saudi Arabia said it had evacuated 157 Saudis and people of other nationalities, broadcasting footage of people on a naval ship, and Kuwait said some of its citizens had arrived in Jeddah. Jordan said it had started evacuating 300 citizens.
In a security alert, the US embassy in Sudan said it had “incomplete information about significant convoys departing Khartoum traveling towards Port Sudan” and that the situation remained dangerous. “Traveling in any convoy is at your own risk,” it said.
With the US 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.
Securing airport ‘priority number one’
Al-Burhan told the 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.
James Moran, former European Union ambassador in the Gulf and North African regions, told Al Jazeera that securing the airport is a “top priority” for evacuations as Khartoum is “a long way” from the port.
“It’s very difficult under those circumstances to get people out of Khartoum across to the coast … you’re going to have to depend primarily on airlift,” Moran said.
“And if we know that the airport is not secure right now, no wonder that the Americans and others are sceptical about getting people out right now until that airport is secured.
“Securing that airport, and making sure that the runway is good enough to allow military planes to land – and I think military planes will have to be used in most cases to get people out – doing that, is priority number one.”
Even as the warring sides said on Friday they had agreed to a ceasefire for the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, explosions and gunfire rang out across Khartoum on Saturday.
Two ceasefire attempts earlier this week also rapidly collapsed. The turmoil has dealt perhaps a 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.
Pierre Honnorat, the head of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) in Chad, said 10,000 to 20,000 Sudanese have already crossed the border into the country since fighting broke out last week and the organisation is preparing “to welcome at least 100,000” refugees.
The government of Chad needs support to host the influx of refugees, Honnorat told Al Jazeera.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult if we don’t get support. We already have 400,000 Sudanese refugees in 14 camps alongside that border” he said, but “absolutely no funding for the 400,000”.
Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, chief of the paramilitary group fighting the army, known as the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, claimed he would work towards “opening humanitarian corridors, to facilitate the movement of citizens and enable all countries to evacuate their nationals to safe places”.
We are committed to a complete ceasefire,” he told French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.
But those on the ground painted a different picture on Friday.
“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, gun battles and sniper fire in densely populated areas have hit civilian infrastructure, including many hospitals.
The international airport near the centre of the capital has come under heavy shelling as the RSF has tried to take control of the compound.
In an apparent effort to remove the RSF fighters, the army has pounded the airport with air raids, 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,” al-Burhan told Al-Hadath TV channel. “I am currently in the command centre and will only leave it in a coffin.”
The current explosion of violence began after al-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 removal of Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019. Two years later, they joined forces to seize power in a coup that removed the civilian leaders.
The military and the RSF have a long history of human rights abuses. The RSF was born out of the government-backed Janjaweed militia, which was accused of atrocities in crushing a rebellion in the 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.