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As diplomats flee Sudan fighting, a former envoy says some should stay

Italian Defense Ministry personnel prepare to evacuate foreign nationals from the airport in Khartoum on Sunday.
Italian Defense Ministry personnel prepare to evacuate foreign nationals from the airport in Khartoum on Sunday.

Updated April 24, 2023 at 10:41 AM ET

After nine days of deadly battles between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), U.S. Embassy operations in Sudan are temporarily suspended and American government personnel and their families have been airlifted away from the fighting.

Under an order from President Biden, about 100 people boarded planes to leave Khartoum in a precarious weekend exodus assisted by U.S. special operations forces. Countries from the U.K. to Canada joined the U.S. in extracting diplomats and families from the Sudanese capital.

"There had better be some diplomats who stayed," says Timothy Carney, who was U.S. Ambassador to Sudan in 1996 when U.S Embassy personnel last fled Sudan. At the time, the Sudanese government had refused to deliver three alleged terrorists to Ethiopia after an attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The State Department said Khartoum would not guarantee the safety of U.S. citizens amid the terrorism threat.

Carney calls the 1996 decision to leave a "huge mistake," and while he says he won't second-guess the current operation, he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that if diplomats such as U.N. special representative Volker Perthes remain, they can continue to work with the warring parties to attempt a cease-fire. (Perthes left Khartoum this weekend but will remain in Sudan for now, the UN said in a statement.) "In addition, of course, if some diplomats stay, it gives some hope to U.S. nationals who were not able to evacuate."

Even so, Carney tells Morning Edition, "An embassy is an office building. It is not a fort...No embassy is really defensible." And he says there's no way to fortify the compound against the kind of weapons and explosives used in the violence that over the past week has wounded thousands and killed more than 420 people, including at least 264 civilians.

Why foreign diplomats are getting out

With the airspace closed and airports knocked out of operation, many foreign nationals are attempting to get to the transit point of Port Sudan on the Red Sea. As NPR's Emmanual Akinwotu reports for Up First, many have to get there on their own. "Everyone who can is trying to leave the capital, Khartoum. That's the epicenter of this awful conflict."

"There's clearly this fear that at a perilous moment, countries are retreating from Sudan. And these are countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others who backed the transition and trusted these warring parties to give up power for a democratic process. And, of course, this process has completely unraveled with neither the Army or the RSF backing down," Akinwotu says.

Sudan's commander of the armed forces, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan and the head of the RSF, Gen. Mohammen Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, are former allies who helped overthrow Sudan's government in a military coup in 2021. A power-sharing plan for military rule was supposed to transition to civilian oversight later this year. That plan dissolved when both factions opened an all-out battle for control on April 15.

Carney says Sudan needs the international community to stay engaged in trying to exert influence on the two factions to achieve a cease-fire. "The key, of course, is to see who's got the ability to add more pressure to get these two warring generals to come to their senses and to realize their duty towards the Sudanese people themselves."

Akinwotu's reporting tallies the devastation from warfare that's now in its tenth day. At least 11 health facilities have been attacked and many are no longer functional in Khartoum and the Darfur region. Dozens are shut down. People are either sheltering at home with no power or running out of food or trying to leave. Tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians have fled. And internet coverage has dramatically dropped.

"A sense of what's happening in the country is diminishing," says Akinwotu.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On the Biden administration's decision to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum

It's a major and unfortunate occasion. I was part of that back in 1996. It was a huge mistake then. I can't second-guess what the White House and Department of State did on this occasion, because I'm not on the ground. I don't know what is exactly happening. But one thing's for sure, there had better be some diplomats who stayed. I would hope Volker Perthes, the U.N. special representative [for] the secretary-general, is still there so that he can be in contact with those two military sides that are doing the fighting. In addition, of course, have some diplomats stay. It gives some hope to various nationals who've been unable to evacuate.

On the message to Americans left behind in Sudan

The unfortunate thing is the Embassy left, but some 16,000 American citizens, most of them dual nationals of Sudan as well, are there. And they cannot all flee. And normally an embassy has a contingency plan for moving all of its nationals in case of emergency. I gather that there's work going on to see if that plan can be put together, but in the circumstances, I really doubt it. There's just too much violence between the Sudan Army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Force.

On whether the fighting amounts to civil war

Civil war is at this point a little too strong because you just have the militaries engaged. And to the best of my knowledge, there's very little popular support for the fighting from the civilians themselves - more fear than anything else and, of course, suffering with electricity cut off [and] water unavailable unless you go down to the Nile.

Miranda Kennedy and Ally Schweitzer contributed editing. contributed to this story

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