WASHINGTON — US special operations forces led an evacuation of American diplomatic staff from Sudan's capital Khartoum late on Saturday night, two US officials familiar with the operation told Al-Monitor.
US Africa Command and Joint Special Operations Command led the operation, which was carried out by US Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and Army Special Forces personnel and culminated in a helicopter evacuation from the US embassy compound in Khartoum, one source said.
Some 70 US diplomatic staff had been sheltering in place since at various locations in Khartoum since fighting between forces loyal to rival generals broke out across the country last week, leaving more than 400 people dead.
American personnel had consolidated at the embassy by Friday night before being evacuated to Djibouti via Ethiopia, Al-Monitor has learned. A US diplomatic convoy came under fire earlier this week during a prior attempt to gather US personnel at one location. All were successfully evacuated Saturday night, officials said.
Multiple heavily-armed US C-130 gunships provided overwatch during the evacuation, which was launched after a week of careful intelligence gathering and intensive deliberation between White House, State Department and Pentagon officials.
"Today, on my orders, the United States military conducted an operation to extract US government personnel from Khartoum," President Joe Biden said in a statement following the evacuation.
"I am grateful for the unmatched skill of our service members who successfully brought them to safety. And I thank Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia, which were critical to the success of our operation," Biden said.
Senior US officials warned the leaders of Sudan’s warring factions against interfering with the evacuation, Al-Monitor's sources said.
AFRICOM commander Gen. Michael Langley "had a couple of conversations" with Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, and his rival Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, US Army Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims told reporters following the operation.
Top US Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to Burhan "a number of times" in recent days. "Messages were communicated throughout this to ensure safe passage of our forces," Sims said.
One of the parties to the fighting, Hemedti's Rapid Support Forces (RSF), announced on Twitter they had coordinated with the US military ahead of the evacuation to ensure safe passage.
In a call with reporters following the operation, a senior Biden administration official pushed back on the RSF's claim.
"That was not the case. They cooperated to the extent that they did not fire on our service members in the course of the operation," Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass said.
"I would submit that's as much in their self interest as anything else," Bass said.
Just over 100 troops – all of them members of US special operations – took part in the operation, which was launched at 3 p.m. local time on Saturday when three MH-47 Chinook helicopters departed Djibouti to refuel in Ethiopia before flying three hours to Khartoum.
In the lead-up to the evacuation, Biden administration officials were concerned over the possibility that US aircraft may be fired upon by Sudan's air defenses or portable surface-to-air missiles. Pentagon officials also argued that it was unsafe to pick up US diplomatic staff at various locations, pressing for a single evacuation from the embassy's grounds, Al-Monitor has learned.
Sims, who serves on the Joint Staff as director of operations, described the operation as "fast and clean, with service members spending less than an hour on the ground in Khartoum."
“We did not take any small arms fire on the way in and we were able to get in and out without issue," Sims said.
Despite the success, some 16,000 American citizens – mostly dual nationals – are estimated to remain in Sudan. A senior State Department official said the Biden administration does not see an evacuation for them as possible in the near future.
"As a result of that uncertain security picture, as a result of the unavailability of the civilian airport, we don't foresee coordinating a US government evacuation for our our fellow citizens in Sudan at this time in the coming days," Bass told reporters.
Yet Pentagon and State Department officials are weighing options to make other potential evacuation routes out of Sudan more viable, the department's top special operations official said.
Among those options was using intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to identify secure overland routes and potentially positioning Navy assets to assist Americans who have already reached Port Sudan, said Chris Maier, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. Port Sudan lies more than 500 miles east of Khartoum.
The US is one of the first Western governments to evacuate its diplomats from Sudan. Saudi Arabia evacuated by sea more than 150 people on Saturday, mostly Gulf citizens, who arrived at the the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah. Khartoum has been hard hit by the fighting and its air space is not deemed as safe for Western governments to use for evacuations.
A three-day cease-fire coinciding with the Eid al-Fitr broke on Saturday, as forces loyal to Hemedti, clashed with the Sudanese army under Burhan's command.
At least 413 people have been killed in the first week of the fighting in Sudan, and another 3,551 injured, the World Health Organization said.