Armed drones escorted hundreds of Americans as they began their escape from war-torn Sudan on Saturday amid fierce fighting between the military and a rival paramilitary group.
The unmmaned aerial vehicles flew above a convoy of buses as they made the 500 mile journey from the large African nation’s capital Khartoum to Port Sudan on the country’s west coast, a U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News. Several hundred Americans were on board at least a dozen buses, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
They added that the U.S. government was likely to release more exact figures of the number evacuated in the convoy once the Americans have made it safely to the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.
Separately, a Pentagon spokesperson said that “the Department of Defense deployed U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to support air and land evacuation routes, which Americans are using.”
Sabrina Singh said that the U.S. was “moving naval assets within the region to provide any necessary support along the coast.” She added that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had “approved a request for assistance from the Department of State to support the safe departure.”
Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson, said Saturday that “intensive negotiations” by the U.S. with the support of “regional and international partners” created the conditions allowing the evacuation of citizens and non-citizens alike, including Saturday’s operation.
Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that U.S. nationals were among almost 1,900 foreign evacuees who arrived in the port of Jeddah by ship on Saturday. It did not say how many Americans were on board.
The evacuation came as fighting continued despite the extension of a fragile truce between the country’s two top generals, Sudan’s de facto ruler, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and his former deputy, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo — a former camel dealer widely known as Hemedti who leads the Rapid Security Forces, a rival paramilitary group.
The pair had previously teamed up to co-orchestrate the coup that overthrew the government in October 2021. But their alliance spectacularly broke down over how to manage the transition to a civilian government and a disagreement over how the Rapid Security Forces should be integrated into the armed forces and what authority should oversee the process.
The bombardments, gun battles and sniper fire in densely populated areas have hit civilian infrastructure, including many hospitals. Khartoum, a city of some 5 million people, has been transformed into a front line.
In some areas in and around the capital, residents told the Associated Press that shops were reopening and normalcy was gradually returning as the scale of fighting dwindled after the shaky truce. But in other areas, terrified residents told the AP that explosions were thundering around them and fighters ransacking houses.
Several attempts at a cease-fire have so far failed.
Miller, of the State Department, said the U.S. continued “to call on the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces to end the fighting that is endangering civilians.” He added that Americans are encouraged not to travel to Sudan.
There was some good news however, as the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that a “badly needed” 8-tonne medical shipment consisting of surgical dressings, anesthetics, and other medical supplies arrived at Port Sudan on Sunday.
It added that a second plane carrying additional supplies and emergency personnel was on its way to the country.
Abigail Williams and Associated Press contributed.