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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US positioning troops for evacuation of American embassy in Sudan

Smoke billowing on Thursday above the airport in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

By Helene Cooper, Elian Peltier and Farnaz Fassihi

The Pentagon is moving more troops to the African nation of Djibouti to prepare for a possible evacuation of U.S. Embassy staff in Sudan, where fierce fighting between two warring generals has led to the swift deterioration of conditions in the capital according to two officials.

Senior U.S. officials acknowledged that it would not be easy to get embassy staff out, let alone the estimated 19,000 American citizens who are believed to be in the country. The international airport in the capital, Khartoum, has been the target of heavy shelling, leaving destroyed planes littering the tarmac. Sudan’s air space is also closed.

Vedant Patel, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Thursday that because of the fighting at the Khartoum airport, “it is currently not safe to undertake a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens.”

The United States has a base in Djibouti, and it is preparing to deploy more troops there. The U.S. move comes as fighting in Sudan intensified Thursday, with a bombardment by warplanes in the center of Khartoum amounting to one of the most fearsome assaults yet in the dayslong series of clashes.

It remained unclear Thursday who, if anyone, was in control of Sudan, Africa’s third-largest country. The death toll from the fighting has risen to 330, with nearly 3,200 others wounded, according to the World Health Organization, whose officials said the figures were an underestimation.

The clashes between the Sudanese army, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, have upended the country’s transition to a civilian-led democracy.

Much of the fighting has occurred in and around Khartoum, including in residential areas and other typically bustling parts of the city. Many residents have been hunkering down in their homes amid the bombardments, gunbattles and sniper fire that have hit civilian infrastructure, including many hospitals.

There have been reports of gunmen breaking into houses and attacking civilians, including a European ambassador.

“It’s a horrendous bombardment,” Endre Stiansen, Norway’s ambassador to Sudan, said in an interview Thursday, describing attacks on Khartoum’s airport that repeatedly shook the walls of his residence, which is nearby.

“For the first time, I got scared,” he added. “This is madness.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Thursday called for a three-day cease-fire to commemorate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, to allow civilians to escape and seek medical treatment, food and other essentials. Guterres said humanitarian operations were “virtually impossible” as U.N. staffers remained trapped in their homes in areas of active conflict.

But cease-fires have not held, including one declared Wednesday. Guterres said he was hopeful this attempt would succeed as “all the parties to the conflict are Muslim.”

“The Department of Defense, through U.S. Africa Command, is monitoring the situation in Sudan and conducting prudent planning for various contingencies,” Lt. Col. Phil Ventura, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement. “As part of this, we are deploying additional capabilities nearby in the region for contingency purposes related to securing and potentially facilitating the departure of U.S. Embassy personnel from Sudan, if circumstances require it,” he said.

Patel said Thursday that the State Department was in close touch with its embassy and that, to his knowledge, all U.S. diplomats in the country were unharmed and accounted for. Asked about the potential evacuations of diplomats and American citizens, he said that “all contingencies are being considered.”

A U.S. military official said Thursday that the first few hundred American forces had begun arriving in Djibouti, and that the number would grow as contingency planning by the military’s Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and the Joint Staff in Washington was refined to reflect the fast-evolving security situation on the ground in Sudan.

The United States maintains a permanent rapid-reaction force of about 150 troops in Djibouti to augment security at U.S. embassies. But the possibility that the United States would need to evacuate U.S. government personnel and possibly other American citizens prompted the Pentagon to position a much larger force nearby to intervene in Sudan if necessary, the official said.

Japan was the first country to announce a planned evacuation of its citizens. But announcing and actually carrying out the evacuations are two different things. Germany reportedly sent three planes, only to call off the rescue when they were en route.

Patel repeated the State Department’s advice from this week that Americans shelter in place, and urged them not to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

He added U.S. diplomats, like Guterres, are urging a cease-fire that would extend through Sunday.

The chaos has spiraled out to other parts of Sudan, including the western region of Darfur, where genocidal attacks beginning in 2003 and lasting for years killed at least 300,000 people and displaced millions of others.

In recent days, between 10,000 and 20,000 people have fled Darfur and crossed into Chad, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of the refugees are women and children, the agency said Thursday, and they are sheltering in the open.

Others have escaped to South Sudan and the border area between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the United Nations said.

The United Nations said its humanitarian operation in Sudan remained at a near-complete halt as it was virtually impossible for its staff members to leave their homes. It said that its warehouses, offices and vehicles continued to be looted and attacked and that gunmen were seizing humanitarian aid.

In a telephone briefing from Sudan to reporters, Abdou Dieng, acting U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator in Sudan, said about 4,000 metric tons of food supplies from the warehouses was seized.

Dieng also said that since Saturday, the United Nations had received multiple reports of sexual violence and assault targeting female aid workers, and was investigating these reports.

Humanitarian organization Islamic Relief has also suspended its operations in Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofa because of the fighting. Elsadig Elnour, group director in Sudan, said in a statement Thursday: “This is a sad Eid for people in Sudan, and there is nothing to celebrate right now. Many people have lost loved ones to the violence. They’re running out of money, shops are shut and food is scarce.”

Elnour said his own family had been hunkering down for the past 24 hours because of intensive fighting nearby, and those who could flee were scrambling to reach safer rural villages.

“We pray there will be a real cease-fire for Eid,” he said.

As successive cease-fires have collapsed, fears have grown that the chaos could draw in nearby nations — including Egypt, which has troops in Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia and Libya.

The African Union convened a virtual meeting about the crisis in Sudan on Thursday. Among those in attendance were Guterres, heads of the Arab League and representatives of the European Union. No representatives from Sudan’s warring factions attended.

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