A bus convoy carrying about 300 U.S. citizens followed a long route previously used by other nations and the U.N. It was the first organized American evacuation effort.
NAIROBI, Kenya — A convoy of buses carrying about 300 Americans left the war-torn capital of Sudan on Friday, starting a 525-mile journey to the Red Sea that was the United States’ first organized effort to evacuate its citizens from the country.
The convoy was being tracked by armed American drones that hovered high overhead, watching for threats. The United Nations and many nations have also evacuated their citizens overland, after receiving security assurances from the warring sides.
It renewed questions about why the United States had taken so long to organize a civilian evacuation from Sudan, home to an estimated 16,000 American citizens, many of them dual nationals, when Western and Persian Gulf allies have moved faster and evacuated far more people.
Britain has evacuated 1,573 people since Tuesday from an airfield north of Khartoum, most of them British nationals. Germany and France have evacuated another 1,700 people by air. At least 3,000 more from various countries have been evacuated by sea from Port Sudan to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities said.
As the U.S. ramps up its evacuation effort, other countries are already winding down: Britain announced Friday it would cease its airlift at 6 p.m. Saturday, citing a “significant decline” in demand for seats.
The difference might reflect a more cautious American approach to evacuating civilians by air from a chaotic and unpredictable war zone with no defined front lines — a caution that appeared to be partly justified on Friday when Turkey reported that one of its military aircraft had come under fire as it landed at the airfield on the edge of Khartoum.
The United States has helped American citizens get a seat on flights out of Khartoum organized by allied nations and occasionally on convoys going through Khartoum to the airfield. Other Americans have made it over a border on their own by road, crossing into Egypt and Ethiopia, joining tens of thousands of Sudanese who have made the same journey.
Asked at a news conference on Friday why the U.S. government had not run evacuation transportation in the same manner as other countries, Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said it was working closely with partner countries on the efforts. “This is a collective and collaborative effort,” he said. (At the time, news of the U.S.-run convoy had not become public.)
Mr. Patel said several hundred American citizens have left Sudan since the conflict began.
Even so, the line of hired buses that left Khartoum on Friday evening, departing from a luxury golf course near the now-deserted United States Embassy, came a full five days after 72 American diplomats were flown directly from Sudan by helicopter. The delay between that evacuation, a complex nighttime mission led by SEAL team 6 commandos, and the move to facilitate the exit of American citizens has led to numerous negative comparisons with the efforts of other countries.
The United States initially said it wouldn’t evacuate American civilians or their families, citing a demand that fell significantly below that of other Western nations. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday that only “dozens” of U.S. citizens had expressed a desire to leave.
Since then, other American officials have said they do not have a good estimate of the number of U.S. citizens who want to leave at any given time because that shifts as the circumstances of the conflict change.
The war between Sudan’s army, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, entered its 14th day on Friday. At least 512 people have been killed and 4,200 others wounded, the World Health Organization estimates, although the true toll is expected to be much higher.
The scale of fighting declined somewhat in recent days as both sides partially respected a cease-fire, allowing evacuations to take place. The two sides agreed to extend the cease-fire by 72 hours from early Friday, though many worried that a return to widespread combat was imminent.
In some places, the cease-fire was ineffective. On Friday gunfire and loud explosions rocked at least two neighborhoods in the capital, Khartoum, residents said. Clashes also continued in the western region of Darfur, especially in the city of el-Geneina, aid groups said.
“What I am seeing is thick smoke. What I am hearing is shelling and gunshots,” said Ahmad Mahmoud, a Sudanese resident of Khartoum who witnessed a massive bombardment of the Burri neighborhood in the capital on Friday. “Khartoum is becoming extremely unsafe.”
One explanation for the difference between demand among American citizens and other nations may lie in the different systems employed to communicate with those seeking to evacuate.
In an effort to track U.S. citizens in Sudan, the State Department has set up a “crisis intake” website on which anyone in the world can register to get information, though it is intended for U.S. citizens and family members in Sudan.
A person registering on the site gets taken to a page where they can tell U.S. officials what they plan to do: stay in Sudan, leave on their own or try to leave but possibly with assistance. They can also tell the U.S. government they have already left Sudan. As of Friday morning, fewer than 5,000 people had registered on the site.
For those seeking assistance in leaving, U.S. officials then try to link them to a method of transit and a seat if that is viable. The two main routes out at the moment are British-run airlifts from an airfield in the Khartoum area, and overland convoys to Port Sudan, where ships then take people out via the Red Sea.
That system, however, means that options for evacuation are largely restricted to citizens with access to electricity and an internet connection — something that’s far from guaranteed. Many residents say they have no power, and Sudan’s telecommunications networks, remarkably resilient in the first week of fighting, have begun to break down.
The overland route to Port Sudan is slow and tiring, especially for evacuees exhausted by two weeks of intense violence in densely populated urban areas that threaten to plunge Sudan, Africa’s third-largest country, into a full-blown civil war.
But U.S. officials say they prefer the land route to the airfield at Wadi Saeedna, just outside Khartoum, which they view as more risky. British commandos currently control that site, but dangers lurk nearby: Turkey said Friday that a C-130 plane flying there for an evacuation had been fired upon with light weapons.
The plane landed safely and no one was injured, Turkey’s Ministry of Defense said in a post on Twitter. The Sudanese military later released a photo purporting to show bullet holes in the fuselage of the Turkish airframe, blaming it on the Rapid Support Forces — a charge the R.S.F. denied.
On the road route to Port Sudan, the U.S. military is able to monitor convoys with drones.
The evacuations sometimes also involve fraught personal conflicts, some worsened by bureaucratic requirements, that can leave families with wrenching decisions.
When Sukaina Kamal got an email from the U.S. government notifying her that the overland convoy was leaving Friday, it presented a dilemma. Although Ms. Kamal’s three children are American citizens, she and her husband are not — and neither is her elderly mother whom she is caring for. Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents were being permitted on the convoy.
Moreover, Ms. Kamal and her family are far from the area where the American convoy was departing: Since last week, when fierce fighting spread across Khartoum, they have been living in Wad Madani, a city about 100 miles to the southeast.
Mr. Patel said many U.S. citizens in Sudan have dual American-Sudanese citizenship and have built their lives in the country, making it tough to leave. “This is a very personal and difficult decision,” he said.
American officials report that some people say they want to leave, only to change their minds. Others feel it is too unsafe to get to a pickup point for transportation to the airfield or a convoy departure area. Still, others tell U.S. officials they will only leave under certain circumstances.
The majority of people fleeing the war zone, though, are Sudanese civilians, who continue to pour out of Sudan in every direction. Some 20,000 refugees have already crossed over the western border to Chad, the U.N. said, while 16,000 others have traveled over Sudan’s northern border to Egypt, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya, Eric Schmitt from Seattle, Edward Wong from Washington and Abdi Latif Dahir from Amsterdam. Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from London, and Adam Entous from Washington.