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U.S. Official: American Diplomats, Families Evacuated From Sudan. Aired 9:40-10p ET

Aired April 22, 2023 - 21:40   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: I'm Jim Acosta in Washington. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We have breaking news right now.

The United States has evacuated American diplomats and their families from war-torn Sudan. That's what a U.S. official tell CNN at this hour. We have team coverage to break all this down for you. CNN's Oren Liebermann starts us off over at the Pentagon. Oren, what are you learning at this hour?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Jim, as you said, we've just learned a short time ago from a U.S. official that all diplomatic staff in Khartoum, in Sudan, and their family members, have been evacuated out of the embassy in the capital of Sudan in Khartoum by aircraft, and are on their way safely out of the country, an incredibly important and positive development, especially given the week of fighting that the U.S., DOD, State, and others have been closely monitoring happening in Sudan.

They were looking for a window to get out. They knew this period, this weekend, essentially, the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan, might be that window with a ceasefire agreed to between the two warring factions there, but the ceasefire wasn't ironclad. There were violations, complicated -- violations of the ceasefire, complicating the operation to go in and go out and, of course, the decision to do so.

But, again, we just heard from a U.S. official a short time ago that all of the embassy staff in Khartoum and their family members have been evacuated. With their departure, that's the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Sudan.

For now, those family members on their way out of the country. It's unclear exactly where they are at this point or where they're going. Do they remain in Sudanese airspace? Which direction would they head? Would it be to Djibouti where the U.S. had Marines, several 100 of them ready to go as part of this or to somewhere else? All of that remains part of the questions here.

But the key factor, again, a U.S. official tells CNN that the embassy staff in Khartoum, in Sudan, have been able to evacuate on several military aircraft. I will point out that a short time before that, there was a statement from the RSF, one of the two warring factions there in which they had said they helped U.S. diplomats evacuate on six military aircraft. We have not gotten confirmation from the U.S. that there was any sort of coordination with the RSF, but I did want to point that statement out.

So now at this point, we're waiting for more information, confirmation that have left Sudanese airspace and arrived at a safer location. But again, Jim, we heard from a U.S. official that the embassy staff, the embassy family, the family members of the staff, have evacuated Sudan that marks the closure of the embassy.

ACOSTA: All right, Oren. And I know there's late breaking information coming in. You might not have everything. And at this point, perhaps the military, perhaps State Department might be keeping things close to the vest as they wrap this up.

But do we know about how many people were talking about, how many Americans might have been the dozens, over 100? Perhaps it's too early to answer that question, but I was just wondering about that.

LIEBERMANN: The only sense I've gotten until now, unfortunately, is an incredibly inaccurate one, simply, as you said, dozens, but I don't have a more specific number than that. If they were in on V-22 Ospreys, which is kind of what we expected, those can carry a number of people somewhere between 20 and 30.

But again, that doesn't give us a specific number on how many people were evacuated. We expect at some point we might hear that either from the White House or from State as we learn more about this operation to evacuate the embassy there.

ACOSTA: Absolutely understand. All right. Oren, thank you.

And let's go to CNN's Kevin Liptak, he's over at the White House with the reaction over there. Kevin, what are we learning? Do we think we might hear from the president, might get some kind of statement out of the White House?

I know when the White House is putting together, you know, the kinds of statements that we typically get in these types of situations, that can sometimes happen just as soon as they let us know that this sort of thing has happened.

KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, and certainly we know President Biden, he is at Camp David. We do understand that he's been monitoring this situation over the course of the day. We don't have official word from the White House or from the president yet, but we did hear from John Kirby yesterday who said that if something like this were to happen, if the U.S. were to evacuate diplomatic personnel from Khartoum, it would come at President Biden's order. So we can safely say that this was ordered by President Biden.


And you have seen him take steps over the last several days to prepare for this eventuality, including prepositioning military assets, resources equipment in Djibouti. The U.S. has a large military base there. But you've also seen this effort in Khartoum to consolidate the American personnel who are working there into the American diplomatic compound into the embassy. That's been described to me as a fortress like structure,

It has taken some time to get all of the personnel into that facility. The roads in Khartoum are extremely unsafe. And so that was sort of a process that took place over the last several days. But we did hear from the State Department earlier today that all American personnel were accounted for, and were in a safe location.

We also did hear from an official with the National Security Council earlier today, that said that they had made clear to both sides of this conflict, both of the warring factions, that they are responsible for ensuring protection of civilians and non-combatants.

So certainly everything was sort of building up to this moment. But we should be clear at the U.S. says -- has said that those preparations were for American diplomatic personnel, people who worked for the American government only. This does not include private citizens, private American citizens, who remain in Khartoum.

And the U.S. has said that they is given ample warning to private citizens who may remain in Sudan that it is not safe, but that it does not have the resources at the moment to facilitate a broad scale military evacuation of private citizens, Jim. So we are waiting to learn more, but this is sort of where it stands now.

All of this preparation leading up to what does seem like at this point from this U.S. official to be a successful evacuation of American diplomats and their families. Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. Kevin, I know you'll be looking for more information as it comes in. Really appreciate that.

Let's turn to retired Air Force, Colonel Cedric Leighton. He joins me now. Colonel Leighton, maybe you can help us color inside the lines here a little bit. I mean, when we hear about this sort of thing unfolding, it typically happens and this appears to be what has happened this evening. This typically happens and the word goes out after everybody is safely out.

So one has to imagine, as you and I were talking about this a couple of hours ago, I've lost track of that amount of time, that perhaps they were putting the finishing touches on all of this and safely evacuating all of these folks out.

But as Kevin was indicating and Oren was indicating a few moments ago, days of planning goes into this. And they have to be just absolutely relieved inside the Pentagon, State Department, and the White House, that it appears all American diplomats and their families have been safely evacuated.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, that's totally right, Jim. We -- the planning for something like this is incredibly intricate. When I worked at Special Operations Command, the first piece of advice that I -- from the colonel that was my boss, was make sure that you know which way the door handle turns.

And basically, what he meant by that was, you need to such incredible detail when it comes to the intelligence preparation for something like this. And that they need to know not only the runways but, you know, the layout of the embassy compound. They need to know what the evacuation route is and what possible impediments could come there. What the other forces are doing, whether it's RSF, in the case of the rebel forces in Sudan, or the army. They need to do all of those things.

And some of those things can change, even as these sources are deploying to protect the Americans that they're trying to pick up and then evacuate from the country.

So as Oren and Kevin were mentioning, these are the kinds of efforts that go into it. It takes days and days of planning. There are some things that are already on the shelf for them, so that they know certain things. But there are other things that have to be done on the fly as the aircraft are flying in to take them out. And the aircraft also need over watch as they are leaving with just cargo of the Americans on board. So it's a very intricate operation.

ACOSTA: And if some of our viewers are just tuning in now here in the United States or around the world, just the breaking news to recap what we've been talking about over the last several minutes. American diplomats and their families have been safely evacuated from Sudan. This is according to a U.S. official giving us this information over here at CNN.

Colonel Leighton, let me go back to you on this. And Oren or Kevin, feel free to chime in if you have something to add.

But, Colonel Leighton, isn't -- and obviously the two situations are completely different. But might the operation to safely evacuate these Americans, these diplomats and their families from Sudan might it have been, at all, tweaked or adjusted or modified with Afghanistan in mind, the messy withdrawal in Afghanistan that took place at the end of U.S. operations there? Might that have been a lesson learned that might have potentially helped with the planning of this operation?


LEIGHTON: Oh, absolutely, Jim. Of course, those are completely different missions, because of the -- actually for one thing by nature of the environment of the military and to tactical environment, you know, against them compared with Sudan.

There are absolute lessons learned in what happened in Afghanistan that were applicable to what went on this morning, Khartoum time, and that is, you know, critical thing.

This is -- you know, special operations forces are known for their ability to learn very quickly the things that have happened before, the mistakes that were made to the successes that were -- that were had, those are the kinds of things that, you know, form that catalog of do's and don'ts that they need before they go in.

And they will use that in order to have a good evacuation. And by all reports so far, we -- you know, what we know at the moment is that this was a successful evacuation. And that, of course, is a good thing, not only for us, but also for the forces that were involved in this.

ACOSTA: And, Oren Liebermann, can you talk to us a little bit about some of the intricacies that might have gone into this kind of operation, evacuating these diplomats and their families? And what is going on in Sudan that made this a dicey operation?

LIEBERMANN: So you basically have two warring factions in Sudan, the Sudanese armed forces, and another faction of the military, essentially the RSF, the Rapid Support Forces, that have been fighting in the streets of Khartoum, and that already complicated this situation. That's the situation that the U.S., DOD, State, President Joe Biden himself had been watching very closely over the past weekend. It got to the point where the decision was now made we know to evacuate the embassy to get out.

But just because the decision is made doesn't make it an easy one to carry out. You have to get into Sudan, you have to secure the compound itself, and then, of course, you have to get out of Sudan. Djibouti where Camp Lemonnier is, where -- it's just where the Marines have an Aviation team. They're essentially the aircraft that may well have been used to go in and get out.

It's still some 750 miles from Khartoum. So that's a couple of hours, at least, of travel time in a situation which may go bad. You have promises from the two sides that will -- they will abide by the 72- hour ceasefire over the course of this weekend that should give you a window of opportunity there. But first, we have watched violations of the ceasefire and reported on violations of the ceasefire.

And second, just because it's there, it doesn't guarantee that it will give you the window you need. So you have to watch that very closely as you go in. On the ground, you need forces to secure the embassy itself. There's only a very small contingent of military forces there. According to DOD records, it's about 14 service members, most of whom are Marines who are there for embassy security. So you clearly need a bigger ground element there to secure the embassy in the surrounding area itself. And then you need to get out as quickly as possible, making sure you have everybody safe, again, in a hostile environment.

These are never done in sort of peaceful situations. And that's what complicates them as the U.S. watches. Cedric is absolutely right, you almost certainly have top cover overhead monitoring the situation and different options on how to get out.

So the decision was made to go in, in this environment that although there is the ceasefire in place, could essentially go south at any given moment. Get in, get the family members and the diplomatic staff there and then get them out as quickly as possible and hope the ceasefire holds. You have guarantees from two of the warring factions. How much faith do you put in those guarantees? And what other backup measures have you put in place for other contingencies for what goes wrong? Because again, once you're in and I've loaded everybody up in the military aircraft, you still have quite a long way out. There are several options there, perhaps the Port Sudan and the water there, all the way back to Djibouti. Again, that's another 750 miles back to Camp Lemonnier. Or is Ethiopia an option?

All of these are different questions that have to be worked out with the plan, given the situation, given the environment. Difficult, no matter how it works. So the fact that we can sit here and say that we learned from a U.S. official that all of the diplomatic staff and their family members were successfully gotten out, that is certainly good news at this point as we wait to learn more about the operation itself.

ACOSTA: Right. And we are learning more as this information comes in. Kevin Liptak, how important was it do you think for President Biden to have this go, from what we understand at this point, pretty smoothly given what took place in Afghanistan, as Colonel Leighton was saying a few moments ago, very different situations, very different operations?

But at the same time, I have to imagine that the White House, the president, his inner circle team the team over at the National Security Council, that they wanted to make darn sure that this went off without a hitch?


LIPTAK: Yes. And certainly, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is kind of looming over all of this. It is a specter to any kind of evacuation going forward, because certainly no one in the White House wants a repeat of what occurred there.

And in fact, in the after-action report that the White House put out about the Afghanistan withdrawal, they put it out a few weeks ago, sort of the main takeaway, the main mistake if they identified one was that they didn't begin evacuating Americans early enough. And so that was sort of the main takeaway. It was tacitly an acknowledgment that they had made that mistake while they were attempting to take people out of Afghanistan.

And I think the big difference here is that the U.S. is not evacuating private citizens. And that's something -- that's a point that you hear White House officials make when they are trying to distinguish these two events.

The U.S. makes the point that it is not routine for it to evacuate private citizens from countries that are unsafe. In fact, it is not actually a requirement for an American citizen to register with the U.S. government when they go to a place that the State Department is warning that they not traveled to.

And so they don't even have really a good accounting of the number of American citizens who would remain in Khartoum. This is not something that they would do frequently. They did do it, I think, it was in 2006 in Lebanon.

There are some previous instances, aside from Afghanistan, where they did facilitate these evacuations of Americans from war zones or things like that. But that is not what's happening here.

And so I think after today, after tonight, that will still be a remaining question of what is to become of these American citizens, many of whom are dual nationals. What -- are they -- are they to get out on their own? Will the U.S. help them in any way?

By evacuating the embassy, they're also evacuating the consular resources, any kind of resources that would be available to American citizens who are remaining. And so I think that is a lingering question that will -- that will override all of this as it goes forward, Jim.

ACOSTA: Absolutely. And, Colonel Leighton, I mean, what about what Kevin Liptak was saying, and the administration making it very clear that if you are just a private citizen, American citizen in Sudan, you know, we're not going to take care of you right now, we're going to take care of these American diplomats and their families?

Now, yes, there might be some dual citizen folks who were there in Sudan, but there -- I suppose there have to be some NGO types folks who are providing services in that country. Yes, they may not be American government, but they may be kind -- the kind of folks that we want to get out of there.

What -- I guess when you look at this kind of a situation, what is your best assessment as to how the administration should be looking at that in the days ahead? Because I would imagine at some point, we're going to hear about another list of Americans that oh, yes, we might want to get these guys out, too.

LEIGHTON: Yes, it's a really difficult situation, Jim, and one of the key things is that, you know, if you're protecting the diplomatic personnel, the 77 or so diplomats that were at the embassy in Khartoum, then you are, you know, focusing on that as your priority.

But somebody who is working for an NGO, that is a completely different situation for them, and those people are, you know, sadly on their own, and in this respect because of the decisions that have been made in this case.

Now, there will probably be an effort to get them out usually through another country in the [inaudible] offices of a country like let's say Saudi Arabia or, you know, Egypt, or one of the other neighbors of Sudan that we have fairly good relations with.

That could be, you know, one way that this could go forward. The Jordanians, I think, have evacuated somewhere around 300 of their -- of their people. So these are efforts that are ongoing. And it probably would make sense for NGOs and personnel associated with NGOs to work with their NGO, especially if it's a multinational NGO, and make sure that they are taking care of either U.S. offices, or those of a -- of a third country. ACOSTA: And, Oren Lieberman, just very quickly, to button things up, if you can fill us in, do we know -- I mean, we have so little information to go off of in terms of the finer details of this. We know whether they were flown out, whether they went out some other way. We have to assume at this point that they were flown out or is that -- is it too early to make assumptions?

LIEBERMANN: We do know they were flown out.


LIEBERMANN: The U..S officials said they came out on military aircraft. So that could be V-22 Ospreys from the Marines coming from Camp Lemonnier. There might be a few other options, but that would be the one that jumps to mind. But, yes, they did come out on military aircraft, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. And as for those NGO types of folks who are not with the government, we just have to wait and see. Is that -- is that where we're at right now, Oren?

LIEBERMANN: At this point, yes, we'll need -- we'll need another update on what options they have available to them and what the U.S. can do for them given closure of the embassy for now.

ACOSTA: All right. Oren Lieberman, Kevin Liptak, Colonel Cedric Leighton, thanks very much for all of those insights. We appreciate it. Stay with CNN with the very latest on this breaking news.

And join "CNN THIS MORNING WEEKEND" with Victor Blackwell and Amara Walker on Sunday morning. I'm Jim Acosta.

"Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults" starts right now. Have a good night.