Blinken confirms attack on US diplomatic convoy in Sudan as fighting continues

Aid workers, diplomats and civilians have been caught in the crossfire.

April 18, 2023, 11:02 AM

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that an American diplomatic convoy was attacked in Sudan, where forces loyal to two rival generals are battling for control of the resource-rich North African nation.

"I can confirm that yesterday we had an American diplomatic convoy that was fired on," Blinken told reporters during a trip to Japan. "All of our people are safe and unharmed, but this action was reckless, it was irresponsible and, of course, unsafe. A diplomatic convoy with diplomatic plates, a U.S. flag being fired upon."

Later Tuesday, Arabic news television channel Al Arabiya reported that Sudan's warring sides have agreed to a 24-hour cease-fire that will begin at 6 p.m. local time. The report cited Lt. Gen. El Din Kabbashi, a senior figure in the Sudanese military command.

Since heavy fighting erupted in Sudan on Saturday, at least 185 people have been killed and more than 1,800 others have been wounded, according to United Nations Special Representative for Sudan Volker Perthes. The Sudan Doctors' Syndicate, a pro-democracy group monitoring casualties, put the civilian death toll at 144 and said 796 others were injured. The number of casualties was expected to continue to climb with the ongoing violence.

The fighting started in Khartoum and quickly spread to other parts of the country, though "the heaviest concentration of fighting" remains centered in the densely populated capital, according to the World Health Organization, the global health arm of the U.N.

PHOTO: People walk past shuttered shops in Khartoum, Sudan, April 18, 2023.
People walk past shuttered shops in Khartoum, Sudan, April 18, 2023.
Marwan Ali/AP

Among those killed were three World Food Programme employees who were working in Sudan's hunger-stricken North Darfur state. Two other employees were injured in the same incident on Saturday, according to the World Food Programme, the food assistance branch of the U.N., which was forced to temporary halt all operations in Sudan due to the violence.

The widespread clashes are the culmination of weeks of tensions between Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a Sudanese paramilitary group. So far, neither has shown any indication of backing down. The two men were once allies who had jointly orchestrated a military coup in 2021 that dissolved Sudan's power-sharing government and derailed its short-lived transition to democracy, following the ousting of a long-time dictator in 2019.

Blinken said he spoke separately with Burhan and Dagalo via telephone on Tuesday morning, making "very clear that any attacks, threats, dangers posed to our diplomats were totally unacceptable." While Monday's attack on the American diplomatic convoy remains under investigation, the secretary said the initial reports suggest "it was undertaken by forces associated with the RSF."

During his conversations with both generals, Blinken said he urged "them to agree to a 24-hour cease-fire to allow Sudanese to safely reunite with their families and to obtain desperately needed relief supplies."

"Indiscriminate military operations have resulted in significant civilian deaths and injuries, and are recklessly endangering the Sudanese people, diplomats including U.S. personnel, and humanitarian aid workers," the secretary told reporters. "If implemented successfully, a cease-fire for 24 hours can create a foundation to build upon for a more sustained halt to the fighting and a return to negotiations on a durable end to the hostilities."

PHOTO: This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows damaged aircraft, including one on fire, at Khartoum International Airport in Khartoum, Sudan, April 17, 2023.
This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows damaged aircraft, including one on fire, at Khartoum International Airport in Khartoum, Sudan, April 17, 2023.
Planet Labs Pbc/AP

Dagalo, who is also known as Hemedti, took to Twitter on Tuesday to confirm his "vital conversation" with Blinken.

"We discussed pressing issues in Sudan and our shared dedication to freedom, justice, and democracy for our people," the RSF commander tweeted. "Although reluctant participants in this war, it is necessary to protect our people and defend our values."

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Burhan said in a statement Tuesday that all those fighting for the RSF who lay down arms will be pardoned and absorbed into the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Perthes, the U.N. envoy for Sudan, told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday that he's been in near-constant contact with leaders on both sides as the fighting continues "almost uninterruptedly." He said U.N.-brokered, short-term cease-fires were put in place on Sunday and Monday but that clashes broke out again before the time was up.

"It's a very fluid situation, so it's very difficult to say where the balance is shifting to," Perthes said. "There are objective difficulties with access to this country and mediators would not easily be able to come here and, to be very honest, the two sides that are fighting are not giving the impression that they want mediation for a peace between them right away."

PHOTO: Smoke rises over the horizon as a fire burns after a strike in Khartoum, Sudan, April 16, 2023.
Smoke rises over the horizon as a fire burns after a strike in Khartoum, Sudan, April 16, 2023.
Abdullah Moneim/AP

Since the fighting began, virtually all U.N. operations on the ground have seen their staff and facilities caught in the crossfire, Perthes said, making it "extremely difficult if not impossible for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid."

"We cannot deliver when our staff is attacked, when they're thrown out of their offices, when their offices are destroyed and their vehicles looted," he added.

A number of hospitals in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities have been severely damaged or destroyed, according to the Sudan Doctors' Syndicate, which called the issue "a clear violation of international humanitarian law." The group said in a statement Monday that some facilities are now completely "out of service" after being bombed, while others lack power or adequate staff and are running dangerously low on medical supplies, food and water.

During Monday's press briefing in Washington, D.C., White House spokesperson John Kirby called for de-escalation and an "immediate cease-fire without conditions" between the warring parties in Sudan, while warning any Americans there to "treat this situation with the utmost seriousness"

"This dangerous escalation jeopardizes the progress made to date in the negotiations to restore Sudan's democratic transition and it undermines the aspirations of the Sudanese people," Kirby told reporters.

ABC News' Tom Soufi Burridge, Shannon Crawford, Justin Gomez, Will Gretsky and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.