WASHINGTON — U.S. special operations forces conducted a precarious evacuation of the U.S. embassy in belligerent Sudan on Sunday, flying in and out of the capital Khartoum with helicopters grounded for less than an hour. No shots were fired and there were no major casualties.
With the last U.S. embassy employee gone, Washington closed the U.S. mission in Khartoum indefinitely. Left behind were thousands of private American citizens who remained in the East African country.
US officials said it would be too dangerous to conduct a wider evacuation mission. Fighting between two rival Sudanese commanders entered their ninth day on Sunday, forcing the main international airport to be closed and roads to be diverted out of the country by armed men. Fighting has cost the lives of more than 400 people.
In a statement thanking the troops, President Joe Biden said he received regular reports from his team about efforts to help the remaining Americans in Sudan “as far as possible.”
He also called for an end to “unwanted” violence there.
About 100 US troops in three MH-47 helicopters carried out the operation. They transferred all of the approximately 70 remaining U.S. employees from a landing zone at the embassy to an undisclosed location in Ethiopia. Ethiopia also provided overflight and refueling support, said Molly Phee, assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Biden said Djibouti, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia also helped with the evacuation.
“I am proud of the extraordinary efforts of our embassy staff, who performed their duties with courage and professionalism and epitomized American friendship and connection with the people of Sudan,” Biden said in a statement. “I am grateful for the unparalleled skill of our service personnel who successfully carried them to safety.”
US Africa Command and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley liaised with both belligerents before and during the operation to ensure that US forces would have safe passage to carry out the evacuation. However, John Bass, a US undersecretary of state, denied claims by one faction, Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Security Forces, that it had assisted in the US evacuation.
“They were so cooperative that they didn’t fire on our soldiers during the operation,” Bass said.
Biden had ordered US troops to evacuate embassy personnel following a recommendation from his national security team, with no end in sight to the fighting.
“This tragic violence in Sudan has already claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians. It is unconscionable and it must stop,” Biden said. “The belligerents must implement an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, allow unimpeded humanitarian access and respect the will of the people of Sudan.”
On April 15, fighting broke out in Sudan between two commanders who just 18 months earlier had together orchestrated a military coup to derail the country’s transition to democracy.
The ongoing power struggle between the Chief of the Armed Forces, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the head of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, has left millions of Sudanese huddled in their homes, hidden from explosions, gunfire, and looting. .
The violence included an unprovoked attack on a US diplomatic convoy and numerous incidents in which foreign diplomats and aid workers were killed, injured or assaulted.
An estimated 16,000 private US citizens are registered with the embassy as being in Sudan. The figure is rough because not all Americans register at the embassy or say when they are leaving.
The embassy warned earlier Saturday that “due to the uncertain security situation in Khartoum and the closure of the airport, it is not currently safe to carry out a US government-coordinated evacuation of US citizens.”
U.S. evacuation planning for U.S. embassy employees got underway in earnest on Monday after the embassy convoy in Khartoum was attacked. The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that US troops will be moved to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti pending a possible evacuation.
Saudi Arabia announced the successful repatriation of some of its citizens on Saturday, sharing footage of Saudi nationals and other foreigners being welcomed with chocolate and flowers as they disembarked from an apparent evacuation ship in the Saudi port of Jeddah.
U.S. military evacuations of embassies are relatively rare and usually only occur under extreme circumstances.
When instructing an embassy to withdraw personnel or suspend operations, the State Department prefers that personnel depart by commercial transport, if that is an option.
When the embassy in Kiev was temporarily closed just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, employees used commercial transport to leave.
However, in several other recent cases, most notably in Afghanistan in 2021, conditions made commercial departures impossible or extremely dangerous. US troops accompanied personnel from the US embassy in Tripoli, Libya, in an overland convoy to Tunisia when they evacuated in 2014.