(KHARTOUM, Sudan) — Under pitch black conditions and amid fighting, U.S. military forces swooped into war-torn Sudan in two Chinook helicopters and evacuated the American embassy in a “fast and clean” operation, military officials said late Saturday evening.
President Joe Biden confirmed the evacuation of U.S. government personnel from Khartoum under his orders and said the administration would continue to assist Americans in Sudan. Biden praised embassy staff, saying ina statement they “embodied America’s friendship and connection with the people of Sudan.”
“I am grateful for the unmatched skill of our service members who successfully brought them to safety,” he said. “And I thank Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia, which were critical to the success of our operation.”
Biden said the embassy had been temporarily closed but “our commitment to the Sudanese people and the future they want for themselves is unending.”
Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described evacuation operation as being “fast and clean.”
Sims said at a briefing that the mission got underway at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday, when two MH-47 Chinook helicopters took off from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, refueled in Ethiopia and flew into the Sudanese capital of Khartoum to evacuate the U.S. embassy. He said the special forces team was on the ground in Khartoum for less than an hour.
Sims said that “under” 100 people, including Americans from the embassy and other personnel from unidentified embassies, were evacuated, including all U.S. Marines who were providing security at the embassy.
Overall, the rescue helicopters flew 1,600 miles from Djibouti to Khartoum and back.
Sims said that for much of their transit, the helicopters flew in at 100 knots and low to the ground in pitch black conditions. He said the helicopters did not take any ground fire on their way in and out of Khartoum.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the suspensions of operations at the embassy in Khartoum were due to the growing security risk and ensuring the safety of personnel.
“The widespread fighting has caused significant numbers of civilian deaths and injuries and damage to essential infrastructure and posed an unacceptable risk to our Embassy personnel,” Blinken said in a statement.
The State Department updated its travel advisory for Sudan to reflect that the U.S. embassy in Khartoum had suspended operations. The department’s advisory for Sudan remains at its highest warning level — where it has been since August of 2021.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted the successful evacuation operation was conducted at Biden’s direction. He also highlighted the countries that assisted the operation.
“We also thank our allies and partners, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia, which were critical to the success of this operation,” Austin said in a statement.
The Rapid Support Forces, the Sudanese paramilitary group battling Sudan’s army, issued a statement claiming to have aided in the U.S. evacuation.
“Today, Sunday, the Rapid Support Forces, in coordination with the US forces mission consisting of 6 planes for the purpose of evacuating diplomats and their families, supervised the necessary arrangements that preceded the evacuation process,” the statement read.
State Department Under Secretary for Management John Bass refuted those claims.
“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,” he said. “I would submit that was as much in their self-interest as anything else.”
The Sudanese army said Saturday that evacuations of foreign diplomatic staff from the U.S., U.K., France and China will begin in the coming hours on military airplanes, as fighting persisted in the capital, including at its main airport. Their evacuation will be by air in military transport aircrafts belonging to their armed forces, the army said.
The Saudi Arabian mission was earlier evacuated by land to Port Sudan then by air to Saudi Arabia, Sudan’s army said. A similar evacuation plan will be secured for the Jordanian mission at a later time.
The rescue mission is the product of days of preparation across the administration and comes as the violent power struggle for control of Sudan that has already claimed almost 100 lives enters its second week.
On Friday, Austin told reporters U.S. forces had deployed to Africa to assist with a possible evacuation of U.S. embassy personnel.
“We’ve deployed some forces into theater to ensure that we provide as many options as possible if we are called on to do something,” he said during a news conference in Ramstein, Germany.
Austin and other senior administration officials said at that time that no final call had been made to evacuate the embassy.
Speaking late Saturday, Bass said the quickly deteriorating situation in recent days left the administration with no other option other than to turn to the military to rescue embassy personnel. But he said private U.S. citizens in the country should not expect similar assistance
“We certainly continue to be in close touch with many American citizen residents in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan to give them our best assessment of the security environment and to encourage them to take appropriate precautions to the best of their ability in and around that environment,” he said.
National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby emphasized the challenges in conducting even a limited military operation in Sudan during a press briefing on Friday, remarking that it was “not as simple as jumping in a taxicab” and that at the time, all U.S. government personnel had not yet been consolidated in a single location.
Despite a 72-hour ceasefire agreed upon to coincide with the religious holiday of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, deadly clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group continued through the weekend.
In a statement on Friday, Blinken urged both sides to uphold the truce.
“I reiterate my call on both sides to pause the fighting to allow civilians to take care of themselves and their families, to permit full and unimpeded humanitarian access, and to enable all civilians, including diplomatic personnel, to reach safety,” he said.
But both sides show little interest in laying down arms, and the violence seems poised to continue. An estimated 16,000 Americans are still in Sudan, but despite the ongoing danger, the Biden administration has repeatedly declared they should not expect a government-led mass evacuation.
“It is not our standard procedure to evacuate American citizens living abroad,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a White House press briefing on Friday.
The U.S. Embassy in Sudan reiterated this saying, “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,” in a statement Saturday.
Principal Deputy State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said that officials had been in touch with several hundred U.S. citizens in Sudan concerning “security measures and other precautions they can take on their own.”
But during the press briefing Saturday night on the evacuation operation, Chris Maier, assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said the U.S. military is working on ways to help American citizens who make it to Port Sudan via an overland route get out of the country.
“In the coming days, we will continue to work with the State Department to help American citizens who may want to leave Sudan,” said Maier, adding that one way was to make the overland route out of Sudan “potentially more viable.”
“So DoD is at present considering actions that may include use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to be able to observe routes and detect threats,” Maier said. “Secondly, the employment of Naval assets outside the Port of Sudan to potentially help Americans who arrive at the port.”
The State Department has confirmed that one American citizen has been killed through the course of the conflict, but the limited information flow in Sudan could mean there are other victims not yet accounted for.
At the Vatican on Sunday, Pope Francis called for the resumption of talks to end the fighting in Sudan and offered a special prayer for “our Sudanese brothers and sisters.”
“Unfortunately, the situation in Sudan remains grave,” Francis told worshipers gathered in St. Peter’s Square. “Thus, I am renewing my appeal so that violence ceases as soon as possible and that the path of dialogue resumes.”
ABC News’ Morgan Windsor, Matt Seyler, Josh Margolin and Bill Hutchinson contributed to this report.
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