White House warns American citizens not to count on evacuation from Sudan
An estimated 16,000 US nationals are still in the war-torn country.
As the violent struggle for power over Sudan reaches the one-week mark, the Biden administration is sticking firmly to its warning for private citizens: don’t expect to be rescued.
While the administration says it is working towards evacuating American embassy staff still stranded in the country, it makes no promises about other Americans who could get let behind.
"It is not our standard procedure to evacuate American citizens living abroad," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Friday.
Principal Deputy State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said that officials had been in touch with several hundred of the estimated 16,000 U.S. citizens in Sudan concerning “security measures and other precautions they can take on their own.”
However, Patel noted that the State Department has listed Sudan under its highest-level travel advisory for months, which warns Americans not to journey to the country and advises that if they do, the U.S. government may not be able to provide help in a crisis.
"We have not parsed our words or been ignorant or naïve about the delicate and fragile security situation in Sudan," Patel claimed.
But while mass evacuations of private citizens may not be standard practice for the American government, they’re not unheard of.
During the turbulent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of 2021, the Biden administration airlifted tens of thousands of embassy personnel, private American citizens, Special Immigrant Visa holders and applicants, as well as others. Still, numerous Americans and Afghan allies were left behind at the end of August 2021 -- and Jean-Pierre argued that that withdrawal, a result of the Taliban taking over the country, was unique.
"The Afghanistan evacuation was not the norm," she said. "In Libya, Yemen and Syria we do not provide large scale evacuations for American citizens and legal permanent residents even as those government collapsed."
A more direct comparison to the situation in Sudan might be the mass evacuation of nearly 15,000 U.S. citizens from Lebanon in 2006 when an ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah unexpectedly and rapidly intensified.
During the crisis, the Department of State and Department of Defense worked in tandem across the course of several weeks to transport Americans out of Lebanon on helicopters, military ships and contracted commercial boats.
But Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum, is hundreds of miles from an accessible waterway, and the intense fighting has made traveling through the country treacherous.
The unrest in Sudan also extends to its airspace. Khartoum’s primary airport is closed and badly damaged, and airlines have suspended travel after a jet came under fire.
Even a limited operation to evacuate embassy staff by air would be perilous due in part to the threat posed by combatants’ anti-aircraft weaponry.
On Friday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby discussed the challenges of evacuating the embassy, saying it’s "not as simple as jumping in a taxicab" and that all U.S. government personnel had not yet been consolidated in a single location.
For those wondering what will trigger President Biden to ultimately approve a full withdrawal of government personnel from the Embassy -- Kirby was not willing to draw a red line or describe which conditions might prompt that move, and he declined to say if or when the president would approve a rescue mission for embassy staff.
"I don't think it would be wise for me to walk through all the sort of the contingency thinking that the Department of Defense and the State Department are working through right now," he said. "The military continues to pre-position capabilities nearby. In case they're needed, but there has not been a decision made that they will be making sure that we're ready for it."
So far, at least 330 people have been reported dead and 3,200 injured from the fighting between the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces, though the true figures are likely higher, according to the World Health Organization
ABC’s Sarah Kolinovsky, Ayat Al-Tawy and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.