Canada moves diplomats out of Sudan as intense fighting continues

Canada is temporarily suspending operations in Sudan, the federal government announced Sunday.

“The situation in Sudan has rapidly deteriorated, making it impossible to safeguard the safety and security of our staff in Khartoum,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement.

Canadian diplomats will work “from a safe location outside the country … to support Canadians still in country,” it went on. 

The federal government previously announced it had temporarily suspended in-person operations at its embassy in Khartoum.

“The Canadian Embassy will resume operations in Khartoum as soon as the situation in Sudan allows us to guarantee proper service and the safety and security for our staff,” Sunday’s statement said.

Foreign governments evacuated diplomats, staff and others trapped in Sudan on Sunday as rival generals battled for a ninth day with no sign of a truce that had been declared for a major Muslim holiday. While world powers like the U.S. and Britain airlifted their diplomats from the capital of Khartoum, Sudanese desperately sought to flee the chaos. Many who travelled risked dangerous roads to seek safer spots or crossed the northern frontier into Egypt.

Canada’s latest statement did not give any details on evacuation efforts. On Saturday, the federal government said evacuations by air were not possible, and that its officials were “co-ordinating with other countries to respond to the crisis.”

Saudi Arabia said it helped some Canadians escape Sudan on Saturday.

Many dual nationals in tough spot: former envoy

Nearly 1,600 Canadians are registered as being in Sudan as of Saturday, according to Global Affairs Canada.

But Nicholas Coghlan, Canada’s former top envoy to Sudan, said in a Sunday interview that the number is likely “considerably higher,” with many being dual nationals.

He said many Canadians abroad see registering as a needless hassle, while others believe their information will be shared with other branches of government such as the Canada Revenue Agency, despite laws preventing such data transfers.

Two rescuers hold a baby.
Saudi Royal Navy officers assist a child on board their ship at the Port of Sudan as they evacuate Saudi and other nationals on Saturday. Saudi Arabia said on social media that it also helped some Canadians escape. (Saudi Ministry of Defence/Reuters)

Coghlan was also Canada’s first ambassador to South Sudan when it separated from that country in 2011, and he oversaw an evacuation of citizens after civil war broke out in 2013.

At that time, less than 20 Canadian citizens were registered in South Sudan, but roughly 140 ended up being evacuated in less than a week.

Coghlan said Sunday’s announced suspension of consular services means Canadian citizens who need emergency passports to leave Sudan likely have no chance of getting them, because Ottawa deemed it too risky to keep a scaled-down operation running in the country.

He said many dual nationals likely have expired passports or insufficient paperwork to get on a flight.

Some registered Canadians likely work for the United Nations or aid organizations, which can help extract them, but many will be private citizens with family ties to Sudan who will be left to their own devices.

Evacuations underway

The fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the powerful Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group (RSF) has targeted and paralyzed the country’s main international airport in Khartoum, reducing a number of civilian aircraft to ruins and gutting at least one runway.

Canada’s embassy is near that airport, making it one of the most dangerous areas in the country, Coghlan said.

Other airports across the country have also been knocked out of operation.

Overland travel across areas contested by the warring parties has proven dangerous. Khartoum is some 840 kilometres from Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Sunday the country’s armed forces evacuated diplomatic staff and their family members from Sudan.

Sunak paid tribute to what he called a “complex” evacuation after he said there had been a significant escalation in violence and threats to embassy staff.

Britain’s defence minister, Ben Wallace, said British troops undertook the rescue operation alongside the United States, France, and other unnamed allies.

The U.S. military also airlifted embassy officials out of Sudan on Sunday and other governments raced to evacuate their diplomatic staff and citizens trapped in the capital.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the the country was temporarily suspending operations at its embassy in Khartoum but remained committed to the Sudanese people, reiterating calls for a ceasefire.

“The belligerent parties must implement an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and respect the will of the people of Sudan,” he said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia on Saturday said the kingdom successfully evacuated 157 people, including 91 Saudi nationals and citizens of other countries. Saudi state TV released footage of a large convoy of Saudis and other foreign nationals travelling by car and bus from Khartoum to Port Sudan, where a navy ship then ferried the evacuees across the Red Sea to the Saudi port of Jeddah.

Smoke rises above a city.
Smoke is seen rising above Khartoum, Sudan, on Saturday. Fighting in the capital between the Sudanese Army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) continues as foreign nation struggle to safely evacuate their citizens. (Marwan Ali/The Associated Press)

The warring sides accused each other of attacking a convoy of French nationals, both saying one French person was wounded. France’s Foreign Ministry, which had earlier said it was evacuating diplomatic staff and citizens, did not comment.

The army also accused the RSF of attacking and looting a Qatari convoy heading to Port Sudan. Doha released no immediate statement on any incident. Egypt said a member of its mission in Sudan had been wounded by a gunshot, without giving details.

Sudan experienced a “near-total collapse” of internet and phone connections nationwide Sunday, according to the monitoring service NetBlocks.

“It’s possible that infrastructure has been damaged or sabotaged,” said NetBlocks director Alp Toker. “This will have a major effect on residents’ ability to stay safe and will impact the evacuation programs that are ongoing.”

Fighting continues despite ceasefire

Fighting raged in Omdurman, the city across the Nile from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, residents reported. The violence came despite a declared truce that was to coincide with the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

“We did not see such a truce,” said Amin al-Tayed from his home near state television headquarters in Omdurman. He said heavy gunfire and thundering explosions rocked the city. “The battles did not stop,” he said.

Two men, each in separate photos and apparently gesturing to onlookers, wear army uniforms and raise swagger sticks.
This composite shows General Abdel Fattah Burhan, left, the head of Sudan’s ruling military council, and Sudanese paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo in Sudan at separate events in June 2019. (Yasuyoshi Chiba and Ashraf Shazly/Getty Images)

The power struggle between the Sudanese military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the RSF, led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, has dealt a harsh blow to Sudan’s heady hopes for a democratic transition. More than 420 people, including 264 civilians, have been killed and more than 3,700 have been wounded in the fighting.

Both Burhan and Dagalo, each craving international legitimacy, have accused each other of obstructing efforts to evacuate foreign diplomatic officials. The Sudanese military alleged Sunday that the RSF had opened fire on a French convoy during its evacuation, wounding a French national. In response, the RSF claimed it came under attack by military aircraft as French citizens and diplomats made their way to Omdurman after evacuating the embassy. It said the military’s strikes “endangered the lives of French nationals, injuring one of them.”

Three men hold guns and gesture toward the camera in a dirt-covered area with a vehicle and a building in the background.
Sudanese army soldiers, loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah Burhan, pose for a picture in Port Sudan on April 16. (AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of Sudanese have fled the combat in Khartoum and other hotspots, according to UN agencies. Up to 20,000 people have abandoned their homes in the western region of Darfur for neighbouring Chad. War is not new to Darfur, where ethnically motivated violence has killed as many as 300,000 people since 2003. But Sudan is not used to such heavy fighting in its capital.

“The capital has become a ghost city,” said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, secretary of the Doctors’ Syndicate.

From the Vatican, Pope Francis called for prayers and offered invocations for peace in the vast African nation.

The current explosion of 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.

The rival generals rose to power in the tumultuous aftermath of popular uprisings that led to the ouster of Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019. Two years later, they joined forces to seize power in a coup that ousted the civilian leaders and opened a troubled new chapter in the country’s history.

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