An announced emergency evacuation from Sudan was thrown into confusion on Saturday when the American Embassy there said it was too dangerous to evacuate its citizens, just hours after the country’s military chief vowed to help relocate nationals of several countries including the United States.
As fighting between two clashing military factions entered its second week, the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is Sudan’s de facto leader, said in a statement on Saturday morning that his troops would facilitate the evacuation of diplomats and citizens from Britain, China, France and the United States “in the coming hours.”
Soon after, however, the American Embassy said in a security alert that “due to the uncertain security situation in Khartoum and closure of the airport, it is not currently safe to undertake a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of private U.S. citizens.”
It was not immediately clear whether the United States planned an evacuation of embassy staff. Current air evacuation plans are focused on getting diplomats and their families out first.
Regarding a possible overland route from Khartoum, the capital, toward the city of Port Sudan, the embassy added: “The embassy is unable to assist convoys. Traveling in any convoy is at your own risk.”
A spokeswoman for France’s Foreign Ministry said she could not confirm the evacuation of any French diplomat or citizen. A representative from Britain’s Foreign Ministry issued a similar statement.
The contradictory statements were the latest signs of the chaos and confusion that have prevailed in Sudan, Africa’s third largest nation, since fighting erupted on April 15 between two factions whose leaders are vying for control over the country. At least 400 people have been killed in the ensuing clashes and 3,500 injured, according to the United Nations. They include at least 256 civilians who died and 1,454 who were wounded, according to a doctors trade union.
Countless residents of Khartoum have fled the city, where bodies line the streets, to find refuge in safer suburbs and states. More than 15,000 people from the western region of Darfur have fled into neighboring Chad, and humanitarian organizations have reported being unable to work amid the incessant fighting.
With fighting persisting for an eighth day, it remained unclear how and when any departures could be organized. The international airport in Khartoum has been closed amid the fighting, and roads across the country remain dangerous.
On Friday, a team of experts inspected the Khartoum airport’s runways, according to a security official. The Sudanese military, which is fighting against the rival Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, has increased its presence on the airport’s perimeter.
Several countries have positioned planes in neighboring countries, ready to fly when the airport is clear. By one estimate, the planes will be able to carry up to 4,000 people in total.
But any flights in and out of Khartoum are risky. The area around the airport, including the military headquarters, has been the site of some of the most intense fighting over the past week. And residents said that gun battles continued to rage in several parts of the city on Saturday morning, including near the airport.
With the flights most likely to be limited to diplomatic staff, at least initially, other groups are making plans to leave the city by road. The United Nations is preparing a large convoy to leave as early as Sunday, having negotiated safe passage with the warring parties. It was unclear whether non-United Nations personnel would be allowed to join the convoy.
Road travel also involves considerable risk. Khartoum is 600 miles from the border with Egypt and 525 miles from Port Sudan on the Red Sea — about the same distance from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, but through areas contested by the two sides.
Foreigners and wealthy Sudanese are turning to private security companies to help escape Khartoum, but risks remain. The security official said that one convoy carrying 17 people had made a 14-hour journey from the city on Friday, only to arrive in a heavily contested area where gun battles continued on Saturday.
For many, the most immediate challenge is to safely leave the homes where they have been sheltering for the past week. One United Nations official said that a diplomatic vehicle traveling to her home had been stopped by armed men and robbed of all valuables.
Some people have managed to leave, however. General al-Burhan said that diplomats from Saudi Arabia had been evacuated by land to Port Sudan, in the country’s east, and taken to Saudi Arabia, with a similar operation expected to take place for Jordanian citizens. Hungary’s foreign minister said on Saturday that 14 Hungarian citizens and 48 foreign nationals, most of them American and Italian citizens, had been evacuated by sea and were headed to Egypt.
As the clashes continued, Sudan’s health care system was teetering, and there were few signs that the two warring factions would stop fighting. Out of 78 major hospitals in the country, only 55 are operational, according to the physicians association.
“The health care system is about to collapse,” Mohamed Eisa, the secretary general of the Sudanese American Physicians Association, a United States-based nonprofit, said in a telephone interview from Khartoum. “We must secure a safe passage for the injured.”
Gunfire had stopped on Friday evening, leaving Khartoum residents hopeful that a break was in sight. Dr. Eisa said that for the first time, he had been able to get some sleep at his home in southern Khartoum, where the fighting has been continuous.
It did not last long.
He woke up on Saturday morning to the sound of gunfire and heavy machinery. “It was as if nothing had happened,” he said of the dashed hopes for some respite.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris.