UN warns of ‘catastrophic conflagration’ in Sudan as foreign exodus accelerates
KHARTOUM — Western, Arab, and Asian nations raced to extract their citizens from Sudan on Monday as the UN chief warned of the risk of “a catastrophic conflagration’ with wider repercussions and urged international powers to exert maximum pressure for peace.
Foreign evacuations included a 65-vehicle convoy with dozens of children among diplomats and aid workers on an 800-km (500-mile), 35-hour journey in searing heat from the embattled capital Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
The eruption of violence between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group on April 15 has killed at least 427 people, knocked out hospitals and other services, and turned residential areas into war zones.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned at a session of the UN Security Council in New York that the violence “risks a catastrophic conflagration within Sudan that could engulf the whole region and beyond.”
He urged the 15 Council members to use their clout to end the violence and return Sudan to the path of democratic transition after a 2021 military coup, following the fall of Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir to a popular uprising.
“We must all do everything within our power to pull Sudan back from the edge of the abyss … We stand with them at this terrible time,” he said, adding he had authorized temporary relocation of some UN personnel and families.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was in close touch with Sudanese military leaders and pressing them to fully implement ceasefire deals, as well as exploring options to return a US consular presence to Sudan as soon as possible.
Israel on Monday proposed hosting rival Sudanese leaders for ceasefire talks after what it called “very promising” progress in mediation efforts led by a senior Israeli official over the past few days. It gave no further details.
Tens of thousands of people, including Sudanese and citizens from neighboring countries, have fled in the past few days, including to Egypt, Chad, and South Sudan, despite the instability and difficult living conditions there.
Scarce food, electricity, water
“There is still a challenge in accessing food, there’s still a challenge accessing electricity and water and that is prompting people to move,” said Farid Aiywar, Sudan head for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
For those remaining in Africa’s third largest country, where UN agencies say a third of its 46 million people needed aid even before the violence, the situation was increasingly bleak.
Facing attacks, aid organizations were among those withdrawing staff and the World Food Programme has suspended its food distribution mission, one of the largest in the world.
Clean water and fuel were becoming harder to come by in Khartoum, with electricity and internet services patchy. Residents have been sharing resources.
Evacuations picked up during a partial lull in fighting between the army and the RSF, but few expected the relative slowing of army air strikes, artillery barrages, and gunbattles with the RSF in residential neighborhoods to last once the international evacuation operations were complete.
“The quick evacuation of Westerners means that the country is on the brink of collapse. But we expect a greater role from them in supporting stability by pressuring the two sides to stop the war,” said Suleiman Awad, a 43-year-old academic living in an area of Omdurman hit by bombardments on Monday.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto warned that by disengaging diplomatically, the West risked allowing rival Russia to gain more influence in Sudan.
Several nations, including Canada, France, Poland, Switzerland, and the United States have halted embassy operations until further notice.
By Monday afternoon, fighting was starting to pick up again. Air strikes and ground fighting shook Omdurman, Khartoum’s sister city on the opposite bank of the Nile River, and there were also clashes in the capital, a Reuters reporter said.
Dark smoke enveloped the sky near the international airport in central Khartoum, adjacent to army headquarters, and booms of artillery fire rattled the surroundings.
There has been little change in the pattern of fighting with the RSF spread through neighborhoods and the army, deployed in more limited areas, using air strikes on their rivals.
Flurry of evacuation missions
The two sides have not abided by several temporary truce deals despite heavy pressure from countries worried about the conflict’s wider reverberations and the safety of their nationals.
However fighting calmed enough over the weekend for the United States and the United Kingdom to get embassy staff out, triggering a rush of evacuations of hundreds of foreign nationals by other countries.
Nations including Gulf Arab states and Russia were trying to get citizens out on Monday. Diplomats have been targeted in attacks, and at least five aid workers killed.
The French Foreign Ministry said on Monday it had arranged the evacuations of 491 people including 196 French citizens and the rest from 36 other nationalities, and a French warship was heading for Port Sudan to help pick up more evacuees.
Several countries sent military planes from Djibouti to fly people out from the capital, including to Port Sudan where some have boarded ships to Saudi Arabia.
A South Korean military aircraft evacuated 28 of the country’s citizens from Sudan, and Japan’s military flew out 45 Japanese nationals and family members.
Families with children crowded into Spanish and French military transport planes, while a group of nuns was among the evacuees on an Italian aircraft, photographs showed.
At least two convoys involved in evacuations came under fire at the weekend, including one carrying Qatari embassy staff and another carrying French citizens, one of whom was injured.
Blinken said some evacuation convoys were also subjected to “robbery and looting.”
The army and RSF jointly staged a coup in 2021 but fell out during negotiations to integrate the two groups and form a civilian government four years after Bashir was toppled.
Their rivalry has raised the risk of outside powers being drawn in: Sudan has seven direct neighbors and sits strategically between Egypt, the Red Sea, and the Sahel.
South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011, after a decades-long civil war. Since independence, the new country has been beset by its own civil war, and refugees had previously spilled into its northern neighbor.