UN warns of 'catastrophic conflagration' in Sudan as foreign exodus accelerates

UN Chief urges Security Council members to use their clout to return Sudan to the path of democratic transition

By Reuters

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People gather as they flee clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum. — Reuters
People gather as they flee clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum. — Reuters

Published: Mon 24 Apr 2023, 11:57 PM

Western, Arab and Asian nations raced to extract their citizens from Sudan on Monday as the UN chief warned of the risk of "a catastrophic conflagration" with wide repercussions and urged international powers to exert maximum pressure for peace.

Foreign evacuations gathered pace.

One 65-vehicle convoy took dozens of children among hundreds of diplomats and aid workers on an 800-km, 35-hour journey in searing heat from the embattled capital Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

The eruption of violence between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group on April 15 has killed at least 427 people, knocked out hospitals and other services and turned residential areas into war zones.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the violence in a country that flanks the Red Sea, Horn of Africa and Sahel regions — "risks a catastrophic conflagration... that could engulf the whole region and beyond".

He urged the 15 members of the UN Security Council to use their clout to return Sudan to the path of democratic transition after a 2021 military coup that followed the fall of Omar Al Bashir in a popular uprising.

"We must all do everything within our power to pull Sudan back from the edge of the abyss ... We stand with them at this terrible time," he said, adding he had authorised temporary relocation of some UN personnel and families.

The Security Council planned a meeting on Sudan on Tuesday.

The US government demanded that warring parties adhere to an immediate truce and ensure the protection of civilians.

Israel on Monday proposed hosting rival Sudanese leaders for ceasefire talks after what it called "very promising" progress in mediation efforts led by a senior Israeli official over the past few days. It gave no further details.

Tens of thousands of people, including Sudanese and citizens from neighbouring countries, have fled in the past few days, including to Egypt, Chad and South Sudan, despite instability and difficult living conditions there.


For those remaining in Africa's third largest country, where a third of its 46 million people needed aid even before the violence, the situation was increasingly bleak.

There are acute shortages of food, clean water, medicines and fuel and limited access to communications and electricity, with prices skyrocketing, said deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq.

He cited further reports of looting of humanitarian supplies and warehouse and said "intense fighting" in Khartoum as well as Northern, Blue Nile, North Kordofan and Darfur was hindering relief operations.

Facing attacks, aid organisations were among those withdrawing staff and the World Food Programme has suspended its food distribution mission, one of the largest in the world.

Evacuations picked up during a partial lull in fighting between the army and the RSF. But few expected the relative slowing of army air strikes, artillery barrages and gunbattles with the RSF in residential neighbourhoods to last once the international evacuation operations were complete.

"The quick evacuation of Westerners means that the country is on the brink of collapse. But we expect a greater role from them in supporting stability by pressuring the two sides to stop the war," said Suleiman Awad, a 43-year-old academic in an area of Khartoum's sister city Omdurman hit by bombardments on Monday.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto warned that by disengaging diplomatically, the West risked allowing rival Russia gain more influence in Sudan.

Several nations, including Canada, France, Poland, Switzerland and the United States have halted embassy operations until further notice.

By Monday afternoon, fighting was starting to pick up again. Air strikes and ground fighting shook Omdurman and there were also clashes in the capital, a Reuters reporter said.

Dark smoke enveloped the sky near the international airport in central Khartoum, adjacent to army headquarters, and booms of artillery fire rattled the surroundings.

There has been little change in the pattern of fighting with the RSF spread through neighbourhoods and the army, deployed in more limited areas, using air strikes on their rivals.

The two sides have not abided by several temporary truce deals.

At least two convoys involved in evacuations came under fire at the weekend. Diplomats have been targeted in attacks, and at least five aid workers killed.

Fighting calmed enough over the weekend for the United States and Britain to get embassy staff out, triggering a rush of evacuations of hundreds of foreign nationals by countries ranging from Gulf Arab states to Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Paris said it had arranged evacuations of 491 people including 196 French citizens and others from 36 other nationalities. A French warship was heading for Port Sudan to help pick up more evacuees.

Four German air force planes had evacuated more than 400 people of various nationalities from Sudan as of Monday.

Several countries sent military planes from Djibouti to fly people out from Khartoum, including to Port Sudan where some have boarded ships to Saudi Arabia.

Families with children crowded into Spanish and French military transport planes, while a group of nuns were among the evacuees on an Italian aircraft, photographs showed.

The army and RSF jointly staged a coup in 2021 but fell out during negotiations to integrate the two groups and form a civilian government four years after Bashir was toppled.

Their rivalry has raised the risk of outside powers being drawn in: Sudan has seven direct neighbours, five of which have suffered political upheaval or armed conflict in recent years.

For their part, Gulf Arab states have long sought to shape events in Sudan to roll back Islamist influence and safeguard major investments to help stabilise the region.

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