NAIROBI, Kenya — It began with a helicopter evacuation of American diplomats from Sudan’s besieged capital city just after midnight Sunday, then turned into a full-fledged exodus of foreign officials and citizens of other nations as the battle raged around them.
At the United States Embassy in Khartoum, an elite team of Navy SEALs ushered up to 90 people onto aircraft before taking off for Djibouti, 800 miles away.
Hours later, a United Nations convoy began snaking its way out of the city, starting a 525-mile drive to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, while British and French diplomats were escorted to an airfield outside the city where military cargo planes were waiting. Other groups headed for Qadarif, a small town near the border with Ethiopia, and a boat chartered by Saudi Arabia carried its fleeing diplomats across the Red Sea.
After days of fruitless diplomatic efforts to get two warring Sudanese generals to lay down their weapons, foreign governments took another tack this weekend: fleeing a country, long viewed as strategically important, that has been in the grip of intense fighting for over a week.
Emotions were raw.
Some Sudanese, feeling angry and abandoned, lashed out on Sunday at the Western negotiators they blame for the disastrous collapse of political talks that were supposed to lead to civilian rule — but instead became a flashpoint for the two generals now battling for power.
Foreign officials, some say, went too far to appease the generals, treating them nearly as statesmen when in fact the two men seized power in a coup and have long records of abuses and deception. Some Sudanese fear that now, the exit of foreign diplomats might allow an even more brutal turn in the nation’s affairs.
“You put us in this mess and now you’re swooping in to take your kinfolk (the ones that matter) and leaving us behind to these two murdering psychopaths,” Dallia Mohamed Abdelmoniem, a Sudanese former journalist and commentator, said on Twitter.
At least 400 people have been killed in the clashes and 3,500 injured, according to the United Nations, and two-thirds of the hospitals have closed. As prices soar, food is scarce and likely to become scarcer still; over the weekend, the country’s largest flour mill was destroyed in fighting. Even supplies of cash are running low.
With no end of the fighting in sight, concern is growing that a battle that has transformed Sudan with extraordinary speed might end up entangling other nations in the volatile region.
On Sunday, the cacophony of gunfire and bombs that has trapped thousands in their homes in the Sudanese capital paused briefly, allowing the Americans to withdraw. But the clashes resumed after they left, putting evacuees from other countries in danger.
One French national was hit by gunfire when a French convoy came under fire and had to be treated at an airfield as the evacuees waited to depart, a Western official said. Egypt said that a member of its embassy had also been shot, without elaborating.
Some of the foreigners who left said they were experiencing mixed feelings: relief at escaping Khartoum after a terrifying eight-day ordeal, and regret at leaving behind Sudanese colleagues. “Awful,” Norway’s ambassador to Sudan, Endre Stiansen, wrote in a text message as he prepared to leave.
“I am safe and I cannot stop thinking about those we leave behind,” he wrote. “Staff, friend, and everybody else.”
The diplomatic rout was a page in Sudan’s history that it never wanted to turn. The violence engulfing Khartoum has shattered a century of calm in the capital, which last experienced violent clashes of such scale in the colonial era, when it was attacked by the British.
Now Sudan’s capital is crumbling, threatening to bring the entire country — Africa’s third largest — down with it. And as it does, foreign powers, which have long tried to stake claims in a mineral-rich nation with geopolitical value, are hastily reassessing their positions.
The most complicated extraction was performed by the Americans. They had been looking to move since Friday, when President Biden ordered an evacuation as soon as it was safe and feasible.
As hopes faded for a truce between Sudan’s waring factions, it became clear that the U.S. Embassy, located in the Soba district of south Khartoum, could no longer count on steady access to food, fuel, and power, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken concluded that there was no choice but to evacuate the embassy and temporarily close it.
But first embassy workers had to assemble there. As the American diplomats arrived at the embassy, dashing from their homes during lulls in the fighting, American officials at the Pentagon weighed their options.
The city’s main airport, hit by shellfire during days of intense fighting, was considered inoperable. The route to Port Sudan, 525 miles away, carried risks because it lacked reliable access to fuel, food and water along the way.
That left the option they went with: an airlift using MH-47 Chinook helicopters. The military also had V-22 Ospreys — a special plane that can take off and land vertically, with no need for a runway — available for the operation, according to three officials, but it remains unclear what role they played.
On Saturday afternoon, Sudan time, three of the Chinooks took off from a U.S. base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, carrying more than four dozen of the Navy’s elite SEAL team 6 commandos, famous for the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The giant twin-rotor aircraft were piloted by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers.
Flying over central Ethiopia, the Army helicopters landed to refuel and perform last checks while awaiting final approval, according to a person familiar with the operation. Then they took off again toward their target: Khartoum. Moving fast and low through the night, the aircraft crossed the desert without lights, hoping to land as close as possible to the U.S. Embassy.
Even with assurances from both sides in the fighting — Sudan’s military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan — that their forces would stand down during the American evacuation, it was risky.
On the ground, C.I.A. paramilitary officers and specialists were collecting intelligence to support the operation, specifically looking for any threats to the evacuation force, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that might shoot down the helicopters. In the air, Air Force AC-130 gunships, bristling with 105-millimeter cannons, flew overhead to provide firepower, if needed, to protect the helicopters, which were flying about 115 miles per hour.
“Anytime you’re flying at 100 knots very close to the ground in pitch-black, there’s certainly some risk there,” Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims II, the director of operations for the military’s Joint Staff in Washington, told reporters in a conference call on Saturday night.
As the operation was underway, Mr. Biden’s national security team monitored events and coordinated interagency support from Camp David and the White House, among other places, and Mr. Biden periodically checked in with his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, according to the National Security Council.
The three helicopters landed in an open area near the embassy half an hour after midnight in Sudan. As a security cordon protected the aircraft, almost 90 people boarded: 72 American Embassy personnel, as well as six Canadian diplomats and a smattering of Western embassy and United Nations officials, two American officials said.
About 30 minutes later, the aircraft lifted off into the night sky, encountering no small-arms fire from either faction as they left Sudan, General Sims said. They landed in Ethiopia where the evacuees transferred into a C-17 transport plane that flew them to Camp Lemonnier, the American military base in Djibouti.
The evacuees constitute a tiny fraction of an estimated 16,000 Americans still in Sudan, mostly dual nationals. Leaving may not be so easy for them. Given the challenging environment, the U.S. government does not expect to evacuate private citizens “in the coming days,” one State Department official, John Bass, told reporters.
Still, in the early hours of Sunday, others countries and organizations started to do just that.
The biggest convoy was organized by the United Nations, with a long train of vehicles leaving from the U.N. headquarters in Khartoum shortly after dawn.
Space was at a premium. One bus hired by the United Nations hadn’t shown up, because an embassy had offered its operator more money, a Western official said. But then an aid agency that joined the convoy also did not get the bus it expected, because it had been outbid by the United Nations, the official said.
An exodus of Sudanese, too, continued, mostly those with the funds to leave. Some took buses to the Egyptian border, 600 miles to the north. Others headed for Port Sudan, where they hoped to find a flight or a boat to Saudi Arabia.
Kholood Khair, a political analyst, jumped at the chance offered by a short window of relative calm on Sunday morning to start a long journey to the east. She feared she might not get such an opportunity again. “Staying became untenable,” Ms. Khair said.
On WhatsApp and social media sites, Sudanese would-be evacuees exchanged information about ticket prices, border crossings and security conditions. But even the flow of information was endangered as the internet grew weaker, or cut out altogether, in the country.
In Washington, even after the evacuation, American officials still clung to the hope that they could stop the fighting and put Sudan back on the path to civilian rule.
“The Sudanese people are not giving up, and neither will we,” Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee told reporters. “The goal is to bring an end to this fighting and a start to civilian government.”
But civilians fleeing on Sunday held out little hope that a democratic future — which appeared to be within reach only 10 days ago — might be realized anytime soon.
At this point, Ali Abdallah, 34, said as he was packing a bag to flee Khartoum, he might settle for avoiding a civil war. “I want this to end before tomorrow,” he said by phone. “But I think things are going to be worse.”
Mr. Abdallah, who in 2019 joined the euphoric protests that toppled Sudan’s autocratic ruler of three decades, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, said he could hardly believe it had come to this.
Some ascribed the mess to years of meddling in Sudan by foreign powers, including Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Even some Western officials blamed themselves.
Anna Saleem Högberg, a Swedish diplomat who lived in Sudan for five years, said that Western efforts to hold Sudan’s war generals to account for their past abuses had been too meek.
“We should have been screaming from the roof tops, I think now,” she wrote on Twitter in an unusually candid admission from a diplomat. “We danced around it, in a dance that took the country to the brink of the abyss. And now, God help them, the people and the country have fallen off the cliff.”
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, and Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt from Seattle. Reporting was contributed by Abdi Latif Dahir from Florence, Italy; Elian Peltier from Dakar, Senegal; Catherine Porter from Paris;Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels; Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin; Cassandra Vinograd and Isabella Kwai from London; and Lynsey Chutel from Johannesburg, South Africa.