Saudi citizens and other nationals arriving in Jeddah, upon their rescue from Sudan. Image Credit: AFP

CAIRO: A boat carrying Saudi citizens and other nationals rescued from battle-scarred Sudan arrived Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi state television said, in the first announced evacuation of civilians since fighting there began.

“The first evacuation vessel from Sudan has arrived, carrying 50 (Saudi) citizens and a number of nationals from friendly countries,” the official Al Ekhbariyah television said.

The boat docked at the Red Sea port of Jeddah where four other ships carrying 108 people from 11 different countries was expected to arrive later from Sudan, the broadcaster said.

Al Ekhbariyah carried footage of large vessels arriving in Jeddah’s port. It also released a video showing women and children carrying Saudi flags on board one of the ships.

Saturday’s evacuations mark the first major civilian rescue since violence in Sudan broke out on April 15.

Earlier Saudi foreign ministry said the kingdom has begun arranging to evacuate Saudi citizens and nationals of “brotherly” countries from Sudan amid armed conflict there.

Image Credit: AFP

The fighting that broke out a week ago in Sudan has killed at least 413 people and injured 3,551, according to the World Health Organization.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy had already been evacuated out by land to Port Sudan and flown out from there and Jordan’s would follow in a similar manner, the Sudanese army added.

The Sudanese army also said it was coordinating efforts to evacuate diplomats from the United States, Britain, China and France out of the country on military airplanes, as fighting persisted in the capital, including at its main airport.

The military said that army chief General Abdul Fattah Al Burhan had spoken to leaders of various countries requesting safe evacuations of their citizens and diplomats from Sudan.  

Foreign countries have struggled in vain to repatriate their citizens, a task deemed far too risky as clashes between the Sudanese army and a rival powerful paramilitary group have raged in and around Khartoum, including in residential areas.

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The main international airport near the center of the capital has been the target of heavy shelling as the paramilitary group, known as the Rapid Support Forces, has tried to take control of the complex, complicating evacuation plans. With Sudan's airspace closed, foreign countries have ordered their citizens to simply shelter in place until they can figure out evacuation plans.

In Khartoum, the army said it had agreed to help evacuate foreign nationals as sporadic gunfire and air strikes echoed across Khartoum despite promises by warring sides to cease fire for three days.

The statement citing army chief Abdul Fattah Al Burhan came after promises by rival Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, to open airports for evacuations.

People fill barrels with water in southern Khartoum on April 22, 2023, amid water shortages caused by ongoing battles between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals. Image Credit: AFP

Sounds of fighting continued overnight but appeared less intense on Saturday morning than on the previous day, a Reuters journalist in Khartoum said. Live broadcasts by regional news channels showed rising smoke and the thud of blasts.

The army and the paramilitary RSF, which are waging a deadly power struggle across the country, had both issued statements saying they would uphold a three-day ceasefire from Friday for Islam’s Eid Al Fitr holiday.

Humanitarian catastrophe

Sudan’s sudden collapse into warfare has dashed plans to restore civilian rule, brought an already impoverished country to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe and threatened a wider conflict that could draw in outside powers.

There has been no sign yet that either side can secure a quick victory or is ready to back down and talk. The army has air power but the RSF is widely embedded in urban areas including around key facilities in central Khartoum.

Burhan and Hemedti had held the top two positions on a ruling council overseeing a political transition after a 2021 coup that was meant to include a move to civilian rule and the RSF’s merger into the army.

The US and some other countries have readied efforts to evacuate their citizens. The army said the United States, Britain, France and China would evacuate diplomats and other nationals from Khartoum “in the coming hours”.

RSF chief Hemedti said on Facebook early on Saturday that he had received a phone call from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in which they “emphasised the necessity of adhering to a complete ceasefire and providing protection for humanitarian and medical workers”.

The RSF said it was ready to partially open all airports to allow evacuations. However, Khartoum’s international airport has been caught in fighting and the status of other airports or RSF’s control over them is unclear.

Hospitals hit

In Omdurman, one of Khartoum’s adjoining sister cities, there were fears over the fate of detainees in Al Huda prison, the largest in Sudan.

The army on Friday accused the RSF of raiding the prison, which the paramilitary force denied. Lawyers for a prisoner there said in a statement that an armed group had forcibly evacuated the prison, with the detainees’ whereabouts unknown.

The Sudanese doctors union said early on Saturday that more than two thirds of hospitals in conflict areas were out of service, with 32 forcibly evacuated by soldiers or caught in crossfire.

Some of the remaining hospitals, which lack adequate water, staff and electricity, were only providing first aid. People posted urgent requests on social media for medical assistance, transport to hospital and prescription medication.

Any let-up in fighting on Saturday may accelerate a desperate rush by many Khartoum residents to flee the fighting, after spending days trapped in their homes or local districts under bombardment and with fighters roaming the streets.

Sudan borders seven countries and sits between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Africa’s volatile Sahel region. The hostilities risk fanning regional tensions.

The violence was triggered by disagreement over an internationally backed plan to form a new civilian government four years after the fall of autocrat Omar Al Bashir and two years after the military coup.

Both sides accuse the other of thwarting the transition.