KHARTOUM, Sudan — The U.S. military airlifted embassy officials out of Sudan on Sunday and international governments raced to evacuate their diplomatic staff and citizens trapped in the capital as rival generals battled for control of Africa’s third-largest country for a ninth day.
Fighting raged in Omdurman, the city across the Nile from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, residents reported. The violence came despite a declared truce that was to coincide with the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
“We did not see such a truce,” said Amin al-Tayed from his home near state television headquarters in Omdurman. He said heavy gunfire and thundering explosions rocked the city.
Thick black smoke filled the sky over Khartoum‘s airport. The paramilitary group battling the Sudanese armed forces claimed the military unleashed airstrikes on the upscale neighborhood of Kafouri, north of Khartoum. There was no immediate comment from the army.
On Sunday, the country experienced a “near-total collapse” of internet connection and phone lines nationwide, according to NetBlocks, an internet monitoring service.
“It’s possible that infrastructure has been damaged or sabotaged,” Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, said in an interview. “This will have a major effect on residents’ ability to stay safe and will impact the evacuation programs that are ongoing.”
PHOTOS: Governments race to rescue diplomats, citizens from Sudan
After a week of bloody battles that hindered rescue efforts, U.S. special forces swiftly evacuated 70 U.S. embassy staffers from Khartoum to an undisclosed location in Ethiopia early Sunday. Although American officials said it was too dangerous to carry out a government-coordinated evacuation of private citizens, other countries scrambled to evacuate citizens and diplomats.
France, Greece and other European nations were organizing a mass exodus Sunday. French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said France was undertaking the operation with the help of European allies.
The Greek foreign minister said the country had dispatched aircraft and special forces to its ally, Egypt, in preparation for an evacuation of 120 Greek and Cypriot nationals from Khartoum. Most evacuees were sheltering at a Greek Orthodox cathedral in the capital, Nikos Dendias said.
The Netherlands sent two air force Hercules C-130 planes and an Airbus A330 to Jordan to rescue 152 Dutch citizens in Sudan who made their way to an undisclosed evacuation point Sunday. “We deeply sympathize with the Dutch in Sudan,” said Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren. “The evacuation and the transfer to the assembly point are not without risks.”
Italy dispatched military jets to the Gulf of Aden nation of Djibouti to extract 140 Italian nationals from Sudan, many of whom have taken refuge in the embassy, said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.
The fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the powerful paramilitary group, known as the Rapid Support Forces, has targeted and paralyzed the country’s main international airport, reducing a number of civilian aircraft to ruins and gutting at least one runway. Other airports across the country have also been knocked out of operation.
Overland travel across areas contested by the warring parties has proven dangerous. Khartoum is some some 840 kilometers (520 miles) from Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
But some countries have pressed ahead with the journey. Saudi Arabia on Saturday said the kingdom successfully evacuated 157 people, including 91 Saudi nationals and citizens of other countries. Saudi state TV released footage of a large convoy of Saudis and other foreign nationals traveling by car and bus from Khartoum to Port Sudan, where a navy ship then ferried the evacuees across the Red Sea to the Saudi port of Jeddah.
The power struggle between the Sudanese military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, has dealt a harsh blow to Sudan‘s heady hopes for a democratic transition. More than 420 people, including 264 civilians, have been killed and more than 3,700 have been wounded in the fighting.
Both Burhan and Dagalo, each craving international legitimacy, have accused each other of obstructing efforts to evacuate foreign diplomatic officials. The Sudanese military alleged Sunday that the rival Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, had opened fire on a French convoy during its evacuation, wounding a French national. In response, the RSF claimed it came under attack by military aircraft as French citizens and diplomats made their way to Omdurman after evacuating the embassy. It said the military’s strikes “endangered the lives of French nationals, injuring one of them.”
The French Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the details of the rescue operation or the reported shooting for security reasons, but said the evacuation was continuing as planned.
As violence rages, hospitals say they are struggling to cope. Many dead and wounded have been stranded by the fighting, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate that monitors casualties, suggesting the death toll is probably higher than what is publicly known.
The conflict has left millions of Sudanese stranded at home – hiding from explosions, gunfire and looting – without adequate electricity, food or water.
Thousands of Sudanese have fled the combat in Khartoum and other hotspots, according to U.N. agencies. Up to 20,000 people have abandoned their homes in the western region of Darfur for neighboring Chad. War is not new to Darfur, where ethnically motivated violence has killed as many as 300,000 people since 2003. But Sudan is not used to such heavy fighting in its capital.
“The capital has become a ghost city,” said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, secretary of the Doctors’ Syndicate.
The fighting has also caught civilians – including foreign diplomats – in the crossfire. Fighters attacked a U.S. Embassy convoy last week, and stormed the home of the European Union ambassador to Sudan. The recent violence wounded an Egyptian diplomat in Sudan, the spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Ahmed Abu Zaid, said Sunday, without offering further details.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis called for prayers and offered invocations for peace in the vast African nation.
“I am renewing my appeal so that violence ceases as soon as possible and that the path of dialogue resumes,” Francis told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
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 and opened a troubled new chapter in the country’s history.