WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of Americans fleeing two weeks of deadly fighting in Sudan reached the east African nation’s port Saturday in the first U.S.-run evacuation, completing a dangerous land journey under escort of armed drones.
American unmanned aircraft, which have been keeping an eye on overland evacuation routes for days, provided armed overwatch for a bus convoy carrying 200 to 300 Americans over 500 miles, or 800 kilometers, to Port Sudan, a place of relative safety, U.S. officials said.
The U.S., which had none of its officials on the ground for the evacuation, has been criticized by families of trapped Americans in Sudan for initially ruling out any U.S.-run evacuation for Americans who wanted out, calling it too dangerous.
U.S. special operations troops briefly flew to the capital, Khartoum, on April 22 to airlift out American staffers at the embassy and other American government personnel. Several thousand U.S. citizens were left behind, many of them dual-nationals.
More than a dozen other nations had already been carrying out evacuations for their citizens, using a mix of military planes, navy vessels and on the ground personnel.
A wide-ranging group of international mediators — including African and Arab nations, the United Nations and the United States — has only managed to achieve a series of fragile temporary cease-fires that failed to stop clashes but created enough of a lull for tens of thousands of Sudanese to flee to safer areas and for foreign nations to evacuate thousands of their citizens by land, air and sea.
Since the conflict between two rival generals broke out April 15, the U.S. has warned its citizens that they needed to find their own way out of the country, though U.S. officials have tried to link up Americans with other nations’ evacuation efforts. But that changed as U.S. officials exploited a relative lull in the fighting and, from afar, organized their own convoy for Americans, officials said.
Without the evacuation flights near the capital that other countries have been offering their citizens, many U.S. citizens have been left to make the dangerous overland journey from Khartoum to the country’s main Red Sea port, Port Sudan. One Sudanese-American family that made the trip earlier described passing through numerous checkpoints manned by armed men and passing bodies lying in the street and vehicles of other fleeing families who had been killed along the way.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the convoy carried U.S. citizens, local people employed by the U.S. and citizens of allied countries. “We reiterate our warning to Americans not to travel to Sudan,” he said.
From Port Sudan, away from the fighting, the Americans in the convoy can seek spots on vessels crossing the Red Sea to the Saudi port city of Jeddah. U.S. officials also are working with Saudi Arabia to see if one of the kingdom’s naval vessels can carry a larger number of Americans to Jeddah.
U.S. consular officials will be waiting for the Americans once they reach the dock in Jeddah, but there are no U.S. personnel in Port Sudan, officials said.
Two Americans are confirmed killed in the fighting that erupted April 15. One was a U.S. civilian whom officials said was caught in crossfire. The other was an Iowa City, Iowa, doctor, who was stabbed to death in front of his house and family in Khartoum, in the lawless violence that has accompanied the fighting.
In all, the fighting in the east African country has killed more than 500 people.