Why the US evacuation from Sudan left Americans behind

AP , Thursday 27 Apr 2023

Warring factions trying to seize control of the east African nation of Sudan have plunged the country into chaos, and thousands are fleeing the capital of Khartoum and nearby battle zones. Some countries, including the U.S., have shuttered their embassies and many are coordinating daring evacuations of their staffs and other residents in an array of convoys, flights and frantic getaway drives.

A view of the exterior of the US Embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
A view of the exterior of the US Embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. AFP

 

But over the past week there have been dramatically different responses by various governments as they try to get their citizens and embassy personnel to safety. The U.S. has come under scrutiny for evacuating roughly 70 embassy staff in a helicopter mission by elite SEAL commandos over the weekend, while warning thousands of private American citizens in Sudan there would be no similar evacuation for them.

The State Department, which has advised U.S. citizens for years not to travel to Sudan, continues to advise Americans to shelter in place. Most of the estimated 16,000 Americans believed to be in Sudan right now are dual U.S.-Sudanese nationals and only a fraction of them have expressed a desire to leave.

But at least some of those who want to leave have managed to get to Port Sudan where they can take a ferry to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, or have gotten seats on flights operated by other countries.

 

A look at the situation:

 

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN SUDAN

It all boils down to a struggle for power between two powerful generals and their armies: Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, who leads the Sudanese armed forces, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces.

Four years ago, a popular uprising in Sudan helped depose long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir. But in 2021, the two generals — Burhan and Dagalo — jointly orchestrated a coup that derailed efforts to develop a civilian government. Both men have a history of human rights abuses, and their forces have cracked down on pro-democracy activists.

Under international pressure, Burhan and Dagalo recently agreed to a framework agreement with political parties and pro-democracy groups. But the signing was repeatedly delayed as tensions rose over the integration of the RSF into the armed forces and the future chain of command. Tensions exploded into violence on April 15.

Each side has tens of thousands of troops in and around Khartoum and the city of Omdurman on the opposite bank of the Nile River. On Wednesday, the second day of the latest fragile ceasefire, sporadic fighting continued.

 

HOW THE US GOT EMBASSY STAFF OUT

As security conditions worsened late last week, including damage to the civilian airport and an attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Khartoum, the State Department concluded that “the only way we could do this safely for all of our diplomatic personnel was to rely on the capabilities of our military colleagues,” said Ambassador John Bass, State Department undersecretary for management.

On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum suspended its operations and ordered staff to leave the country.

The Department of Defense had begun moving resources to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti to prepare for a possible evacuation. On Saturday, three MH-47 Chinook helicopters carrying elite SEAL commandos took off from Djibouti enroute to Ethiopia, where they refueled and then made the three-hour flight to Khartoum.

“The operation was fast and clean, with service members spending less than an hour on the ground in Khartoum,” said Lt. Gen D.A. Sims, director of operations at the Joint Staff. The helicopters flew in and out of Khartoum without taking any fire.

 

AMERICANS STILL IN SUDAN

While embassy staff was airlifted out, there were no plans to provide similar evacuations for potentially thousands of Americans still in Sudan.

In a security alert Tuesday, the State Department reiterated that “due to the uncertain security situation in Khartoum and closure of the airport, it is not currently safe to undertake a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of private U.S. citizens.”

Instead, it provided details on border crossings that are available and the requirements needed at each location. It cautioned that fighting continues and that many routes are dangerous and unpredictable.

American citizens who get to Port Sudan overland and can take a ferry to Jeddah will be assisted by the U.S. consulate there. Right now, the U.S. assistance for Americans is largely limited to phone and virtual help.

The U.S. could send Navy vessels to Port Sudan to ferry Americans to Jeddah or another location where they could get transportation back to the United States. However, officials say this would depend on the security situation and whether it is safe for ships to dock. The U.S. has developed other options, such as opening a temporary consulate in Port Sudan, beefing up its consulate in Jeddah to assist Americans as they arrive, or using a nearby airfield that other European countries have used to fly citizens out.

U.S. officials believe the security situation in Port Sudan is better than in the capital, but remain concerned about the potential for an escalation of violence.

 

WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES ARE DOING

While the U.S. says it's too dangerous to get its citizens out, other countries are proceeding with evacuations of their nationals.

France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Holland, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Jordan, South Africa, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that have evacuated their citizens and those of other countries.

Germany’s defense ministry said in a tweet Tuesday it had ended its evacuation flights after flying more than 700 people out of Sudan including 200 Germans and hundreds more from more than 20 other nations. France said it had evacuated more than 500 people from 41 countries, and would keep a Navy frigate at Sudan’s main Red Sea port to continue assisting rescue operations for foreigners. The United Kingdom was continuing its military evacuations of civilians from an airport outside Khartoum. Brig. Dan Reeve told reporters Wednesday the situation was “calm” and that Sudan’s armed forces were maintaining good security around the airport.

Saudi Arabia’s state run news service said Tuesday it had evacuated about 2,150 people by ship from Sudan, including 114 Saudi citizens and more than 2,000 evacuees from 62 other nations. And Egypt, which had evacuated more than 1,500 of its citizens, said its diplomatic mission won’t leave Sudan until it ensures the evacuation of all those who want to leave. An administrator with the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum was shot dead Monday, the Foreign Ministry said.

 

IS THE US RESPONSE UNUSUAL?

While many Americans may recall the dramatic 2021 evacuation of diplomats and private citizens alike from Afghanistan, those circumstances were far different. In most cases, the U.S. does not evacuate private citizens when it closes an embassy.

The situation in Afghanistan was different because the U.S. was ending a 20-year military presence in the country. It was trying to extricate the residual American presence there, much of which was directly tied to Washington’s role in propping up the Afghan government. No such situation existed or exists in Sudan.

More typical has been the practice in places like Yemen, Syria and Venezuela, where the U.S. suspended diplomatic operations and removed personnel because of turmoil, but did not evacuate private citizens.

The U.S. also briefly shuttered the embassy in Kyiv because of the Russia invasion, but there was no military evacuation for either diplomats or private citizens, and the embassy has since re-opened.

In contrast with the situation in Afghanistan, the U.S. was not involved militarily in the Sudan conflict and had no military presence on the ground apart from the small number of Marine guards at the Khartoum embassy.

Also, the U.S. has warned Americans for several years not to travel to Sudan and told them that consular assistance at the embassy was extremely limited.

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