By JACK JEFFERY and NOHA ELHENNAWY (Associated Press)
KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — As foreign governments airlifted hundreds of their diplomats and other citizens to safety, Sudanese on Monday desperately sought ways to escape the chaos, fearing that the country’s two rival generals will escalate their all-out battle for power once evacuations were completed.
The evacuations were a dramatic operation. In convoys, foreign diplomats, workers and families made their way past combatants at tense front lines in the capital of Khartoum to reach extraction points — or even drove hundreds of miles to the country’s east coast.
A stream of European and Mideast military aircraft flew in all day Sunday, through the night and into Monday, to ferry them out. France and Germany said more flights were possible if security conditions permitted.
But for many Sudanese, the airlift was a terrifying sign that international powers, after failing repeatedly to broker cease-fires, only expect a worsening of the fighting that has pushed the population into disaster. During nine days of warfare in Khartoum and other cities, millions have been trapped in their homes by explosions, gunfire and armed fighters looting in the streets while food supplies run out and hospitals near collapse.
Many Sudanese, along with Egyptians and other foreigners who could not get on flights, risked the long and dangerous drive to the northern border into Egypt.
“We traveled 15 hours on land at our own risk,” Suliman al-Kouni, an Egyptian student, said at the Arqin border crossing with Egypt. Buses lined up at the remote desert crossing carrying hundreds of people, he said. Al-Kouni was among dozens of Egyptian students making the trek. “But many of our friends are still trapped in Sudan,” he said.
Amani el-Taweel, an Egyptian expert on Africa, warned of “horrific suffering” for Sudanese unable to leave.
While Sudanese who can afford it make their way to Egypt or Chad, the poor “will suffer greatly as they will have no access to aid or food,” said el-Taweel, with Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Humanitarian aid can no longer reach Sudanese because of the clashes, and once evacuations are complete, “warring parties will not heed any calls for a truce or a cease-fire,” she said.
Fighting raged in Khartoum and Omdurman, a city across the Nile River, residents said, despite a hoped-for cease-fire to coincide with the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Heavy gunfire and thundering explosions rocked the city.
Over 420 people, including 264 civilians, have been killed and over 3,700 wounded in the fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF.
For foreign nationals, the need to abandon Khartoum had become overbearing by the seventh day of the conflict. Khartoum’s wealthy neighborhoods where most foreigners live saw some of the heaviest shelling and drone strikes, and several fell under RSF control.
Alice Lehtinen, a British teacher living in the Khartoum Two neighborhood, was shot in the foot by a stray bullet on the first day of fighting. Soon after, RSF troops occupied the lower floor of her apartment as they combed the streets for weapons, dollars and other supplies, she said. By this point, the Sudanese pound had become worthless as shops lay smashed and looted.
Another British teacher, Elizabeth Boughey, said the RSF broke into her house and stole her Sudanese pounds, then returned soon after to hand the money back. They looked young she said, somewhere between 16 and 18.
Amid continued gunfire, nationals from dozens of countries made their way to extraction points. Most European evacuations took place out of a site on the outskirts of Khartoum, and evacuees had to make their way across the city to reach it. Some braved the roads in their own vehicles while others called on private security firms to shepherd them through military and RSF checkpoints. From the windows of one convoy, fighters from the two sides could be seen standing, heavily armed but unmoving.
The exodus began with American special operations forces swooping in and out of Khartoum in helicopters early Sunday to evacuate U.S. Embassy personnel.
France brought out nearly 400 people, including citizens from 28 countries, on four flights to the nearby Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, two of them overnight. A Dutch air force C-130 Hercules flew out of Sudan to Jordan in the early hours Monday carrying evacuees of various nationalities, including Dutch, on board. Germany has so far conducted three flights out of Sudan, bringing more than 300 people out to Jordan.
Italy, Spain, Jordan and Greece also brought out a total of several hundred more people, including their own citizens and those of other countries.
Japanese nationals are being transported by land to an eastern town with an airstrip, to be picked up by Japanese aircraft positioned in Djibouti, Japanese media said. France and Germany each said they were prepared to do more flights if possible.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that U.K. armed forces evacuated British diplomatic staff and dependents. But Britain’s Middle East Minister Andrew Mitchell said about 2,000 U.K. citizens still in Sudan have registered with the embassy for potential evacuation. Many Britons in the country have complained about a lack of information from the government and say they are in the dark about any evacuation plans.
Mitchell told the BBC that the government was doing “intense planning” for “a series of possible evacuations.”
The United States has said a government-organized evacuation of American private citizens is not currently planned.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday that the evacuation operation has been successful, with more than 1,000 people brought out by EU member states.
“We have to continue pushing for a political settlement. We cannot afford that Sudan, which is a very populated country, implodes because it will be sending shock waves around the whole (of) Africa,” he said. He earlier tweeted that he had spoken with the rival commanders appealing for a cease-fire.
The army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the RSF leader Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, however, have so far appeared determined to fight to the end.
The rival generals came to power after a pro-democracy uprising led to the 2019 ouster of former strongman Omar al-Bashir. In 2021, the generals joined forces to seize power in a coup.
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.
___ Elhennawy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Michael Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Angela Charlton in Paris, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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