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No timetable on return of US diplomats to war-torn Sudan

Personnel were airlifted from the embassy in Khartoum on Saturday after a week of deadly violence that shows no sign of stopping.

WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. diplomats are stressing that their withdrawal from Sudan is temporary but, even as a new ceasefire brings hope of an end to fighting, there is no timeline for personnel returning to the country.

Western governments, including the United States, largely evacuated their personnel from the northeast African country over the weekend after a peace agreement they backed fell apart, leaving Sudan to descend into further chaotic and widespread fighting.

Officials announced Monday afternoon that the warring factions have agreed to a 72-hour nationwide ceasefire starting at midnight.

The United Nations estimated that 450 people have been killed in the fighting. One U.S. citizen has been killed, but the State Department has not provided any additional information about the person.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. wants to return to the capital Khartoum “as soon as possible” and continued to urge an end to the violence.

“My first priority is the safety of our people and I determined that the deteriorating security situation at Khartoum posed an unacceptable risk to keeping our team there,” he said at a press availability Monday. “The Sudanese people are not giving up on their aspirations for a secure free and democratic future. Neither will we.”

In announcing the ceasefire, the U.S. State Department said it would coordinate the creation of a committee to “oversee the negotiation, conclusion, and implementation of a permanent cessation of hostilities and humanitarian arrangements.”

President Joe Biden, who authorized the operation to remove U.S. personnel, said in a statement Saturday that he’s continuing to monitor the situation in Sudan.

“This tragic violence in Sudan has already cost the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians. It’s unconscionable and it must stop,” Biden said in a press release. “The belligerent parties must implement an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and respect the will of the people of Sudan.”

Lieutenant General D.A. Sims told reporters this weekend that the military was on the ground for less than an hour on Saturday in a “fast and clean” operation that saw no small-arms fire. 

Under Secretary of State John Bass did not provide a firm number on the evacuees, but said fewer than 100 people were transported in the operation, which occurred during a tenuous three-day ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

The State Department doesn’t have “a good fix” on the exact number of Americans remaining in the country, but Blinken noted the “overwhelming majority” have dual citizenship. The Washington Post estimated that 16,000 people with U.S. citizenship are still in Sudan. Its source for that number was not provided.

Although the military did not run into problems getting personnel out of the country by air, Blinken said convoys traveling by land haven’t been as lucky, with some encountering “robbery, looting, that kind of thing.”

Bass didn’t say when operations might resume, noting the conditions in the near term show no sign of changing.

“Our colleagues in Khartoum for the last week, just like everyone else in the city, have been dealing with a pretty intense conflict with a great deal of uncertainty about their future,” he said.

The decision for an airlift was bolstered by the uncertainty of fuel and food supplies, problems conducting basic operations at the embassy and fighting that had shut down the airport.

“Given that uncertain environment, the absence of any commercial air, the absence of any charter aircraft capabilities, and the absence of really feasible overland road routes to get out of the country, we concluded the only way we could do this safely for all of our diplomatic personnel was to rely on the capabilities of our military colleagues,” Bass said.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Chris Maier told reporters that the Pentagon is considering ways to make it safer for Americans to leave Sudan through intelligence, surveillance and renaissance to observe routes and potentially deploying the Navy to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Alfred Mutua, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for foreign and diaspora affairs, said his country has been trying to mediate the conflict and believes it can be resolved. He said the disagreement between the warring factions represented only 2% of the entire agreement for a civilian government.

“We’re confident that is an issue that we can tackle,” he said at a joint availability with Blinken on Monday. “We believe by the end of this year we’ll be talking [about] a different story about Sudan.”

It’s been more than a week since violence broke out between the Sudanese military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, led by Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan.

The two generals have shared power since 2021 after ousting civilian leaders from a transitional government that was formed in the wake of a popular uprising that toppled the regime of President Omar al-Bashir two years earlier. 

Sudan was expected to shift to democracy in the coming months under a deal brokered by Western governments, but a power struggle between al-Burhan and Hamdan eventually broke out into the current armed conflict.

Mutua said the fighting is fueled by disagreements over the timeline for integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the military under a civilian government. 

“We are quite persuaded that a peacefully negotiated solution to the conflict in Sudan is within reach,” Mutua said.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Monday that deploying U.S. troops to Sudan “is not presently in contemplation” and “I don’t expect it will be.”

Mutua urged other countries to not fuel the conflict through direct support to either side, pointing to Russia and the Middle East. 

“At this particular time, it’s not a time to take sides in a war,” he said. “At the end of the day, peace has to prevail. It doesn’t matter who you support, at the end of the day the people of Sudan need to have stability.”

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