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Nations plan Sudan evacuations amid calls for Eid holiday cease-fire

A cleric guides the prayers in Port Sudan on Friday, the first day of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP/Getty Images)
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World leaders called on Sudan’s rival armed forces to commit to a cease-fire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr on Friday after a week of fighting that has rocked the country and killed at least 400 people.

Thousands of Sudanese have been injured and trapped in the power struggle between the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

Fighting at the airports has prevented evacuations, even as governments including the United States have sent planes and troops to Sudan’s neighbors in preparation for extricating their citizens.

Some 16,000 U.S. citizens are in Sudan, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. Around 70 people work at the embassy, excluding local staff. Sudan is an unaccompanied post for U.S. diplomats, meaning U.S. officials generally do not have family there.

Tagreed Abdin, a resident of Khartoum, explains her family's decision to stay in Sudan's capital amid intense fighting that has so far killed over 400 people. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

The RSF and the army separately said Friday that they had agreed to a cease-fire for the holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the announcement and called on them to end hostilities.

“I reiterate my call on both sides to pause the fighting to allow civilians to take care of themselves and their families, to permit full and unimpeded humanitarian access, and to enable all civilians, including diplomatic personnel, to reach safety,” he said.

Still, the two factions both accused each other of violations, and residents of the capital Khartoum reported gunfire and shelling starting the morning Eid prayers began. Mosques held prayers inside, rather than out in the open, in a muted commemoration of a typically joyous holiday, the Associated Press reported.

“Instead of waking up to the call to prayer, people in Khartoum again woke up to heavy fighting,” the Norwegian ambassador tweeted Friday.

An army statement said it was at “the stage of gradual cleansing of the hotbeds of rebel groups” around the capital, while the RSF posted videos of its fighters on Twitter, claiming to have expanded control in part of Khartoum and destroyed army equipment “in a new battle.”

Here’s what to know about the conflict in Sudan

The warring generals were once allied, seizing power in a 2021 coup that ended the country’s short-lived civilian government and derailed its democratic transition after long-ruling dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir was deposed. Tensions between the two generals erupted last weekend amid divisions over a draft power-sharing deal.

Previous temporary cease-fire efforts have failed, and Blinken said Friday that the next step would be to begin negotiations for a sustainable cease-fire that addresses the delivery of humanitarian assistance, protection of civilians and the withdrawal of both forces from urban areas.

“We remind both belligerents of their obligations under international humanitarian law, including their obligation to respect all rights of civilians,” Blinken said. “The international community remains ready to support a process to bring an end to this fighting and a start to civilian government.”

Biden administration officials said the Defense Department was preparing troops near Sudan in case U.S. diplomatic and other personnel needed emergency evacuation. Despite the risks, the department has not ruled out the possibility of such an evacuation mission.

European nations also declined to set a timeline for a possible evacuation, citing difficulties.

The specter of the 2012 attacks on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, looms over these discussions, said Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff for presidential special envoys for Sudan. Those attacks, carried out by Islamist extremists, resulted in the deaths of four U.S. personnel, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

If embassy personnel were to get injured or killed, administration officials could face grilling by Congress. Unlike other embassies, however, which are located on busy streets in downtown Khartoum, the U.S. Embassy is “a walled fortress” located on the outskirts of the city, which could make an airlift by a helicopter easier, Hudson said.

Asked whether the Biden administration should have pulled out U.S. personnel before the fighting, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there could be a time to look at steps taken “retrospectively.” Before fighting broke out, he said, State Department officials on the ground were working assiduously to “head off” hostilities, and then “the fighting quickly accelerated.”

Another precedent U.S. officials will likely seek to avoid repeating: The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, for which the administration continues to come under criticism.

The State Department has instructed U.S. citizens in Sudan to remain indoors and avoid travel to the embassy.

The U.S. government is not undertaking an evacuation of citizens, which would be too dangerous while the Khartoum International Airport and a border with Chad remained closed, said State Department spokesman Vedant Patel. The State Department has been in touch with “several hundred” American citizens in Sudan, Patel said, many of whom have registered under the department’s Smart Traveler program — a service that provides updates on safety conditions and helps U.S. embassies contact Americans in an emergency situation.

Still, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it is not “standard procedure” to evacuate private citizens living abroad. U.S. officials have been warning citizens in Sudan to leave for months.

Families stream out of Sudan’s capital amid apocalyptic scenes of fighting

Since last week, street battles have prevented ambulances from retrieving the dead and medics from delivering aid, pushing the United Nations to halt most operations around the country as aid workers come under attack. Many residents have had to hide at home while enduring power cuts and dwindling food supplies. Some have tried to find a way out, braving the danger.

“As a family we made the decision that there’s no place really safe to go, especially when we know the roads aren’t safe,” Tagreed Adbin, a resident of Khartoum, told The Washington Post. “People are being robbed or shot at gunpoint. Some people have had their cars stolen as they tried to flee.”

At least nine children have been killed and 50 injured in the fighting, James Elder, spokesman for the U.N. children’s agency, said at a briefing Friday.

An employee of the International Organization for Migration was killed when he was caught in the crossfire as he was traveling with his family, the U.N. agency said in a statement.

In the war-ravaged Darfur in western Sudan, up to 15,000 people have fled into neighboring Chad, according to the International Rescue Committee.

“We are seeing that the refugees arriving over the border are traumatized and are arriving with very little provisions,” Aleksandra Roulet-Cimpric, the IRC director in Chad, said Friday in a statement. “The greatest need is for health services as well as water, sanitation, hygiene and protection services, particularly for women and girls.”

The World Health Organization also called for a pause in the fighting to allow deliveries of medical supplies. Most of the major hospitals in the capital have closed.

Farhan Aziz Haq, a spokesman for Guterres, said the United Nations has not been able to evacuate any of its staff.

Egypt said this week it had evacuated Egyptian troops that had been training with the Sudanese army and were detained by the RSF.

U.S. gets ready to evacuate staff from Sudan

With Khartoum’s airport closed, South Korea said Friday that it sent a military aircraft to a U.S. base in Djibouti, where the plane will be on standby to evacuate 26 nationals who are in Sudan. Japan’s defense minister on Thursday also ordered military aircraft sent to Djibouti to be ready for an evacuation of around 60 Japanese nationals from Sudan, and the Netherlands sent aircraft to Jordan, according to the AP.

Germany is in contact with other governments to discuss plans to evacuate its citizens from Sudan. The number of Germans in the country is in the hundreds, said Christofer Burger, the German Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a briefing Friday.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement Friday that the country had deployed members of its Standing Rapid Deployment Team to Djibouti to “enhance our ability to support and to further assess the needs on the ground.” Global Affairs Canada said some 1,500 Canadians have notified the government they are in Sudan, the CBC reported.

Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, said it was “not possible to predict” when an evacuation might be feasible, according to the AP.

Min Joo Kim in Seoul, Amanda Coletta in Toronto, Karen DeYoung in Washington and Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.