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Canada suspended consular services in Sudan on Sunday amid reports of allied countries evacuating Canadian diplomats and as armed conflict escalated in the East-African country.

Global Affairs Canada said Canadian diplomats would "temporarily work from a safe location outside the country" while still trying to help citizens in Sudan.

The Associated Press reported more than 420 people, including 264 civilians, have been killed and over 3,700 wounded in the fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF.

Those deaths occurred in just nine days after power-sharing negotiations between the two groups deteriorated.

Global Affairs said there were 1,596 Canadian citizens formally registered as being in Sudan as of Saturday.

But Nicholas Coghlan, Canada's former top envoy to Sudan, said in a Sunday interview that the number is likely "considerably higher," with many being dual nationals.

He said many Canadians abroad see registering as a needless hassle, while others believe their information will be shared with other branches of government such as the Canada Revenue Agency, despite laws preventing such data transfers.

Coghlan was also Canada's first ambassador to South Sudan when it separated from that country in 2011, and he oversaw an evacuation of citizens after a civil war broke out in 2013.

#Canada suspends #Sudan consular services as diplomats evacuated. #CDNPoli

At that time, less than 20 Canadian citizens were registered in South Sudan, but roughly 140 ended up being evacuated in less than a week.

Canada first evacuated those easily reachable in the capital of Juba who wanted to leave, and then worked to identify others and get them onto roughly weekly flights operated by one of Canada's allies.

The ongoing situation in Sudan is likely different, Coghlan said, because the clashing forces are deliberately targeting airports as strategic locations in a turf war.

The Associated Press reports that fighting at the country's main international airport in the capital city of Khartoum has destroyed civilian planes and damaged at least one runway.

Canada's embassy sits near that airport, making it one of the most dangerous areas in the country, Coghlan said.

The New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. special forces evacuated six Canadian diplomats, along with 70 American diplomats and some from other countries.

The BBC, meanwhile, reported Canadians were among a group evacuated by sea to Saudi Arabia. Global Affairs did not immediately confirm those reports.

Data the department filed to the Senate foreign-affairs committee shows that as of August 2022, the Khartoum embassy had six Canadian staff and 12 who were locally hired.

Overland travel through contested areas has proven dangerous. Khartoum is about 840 kilometres from Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Both the country's militias have accused each other of obstructing evacuations.

Coghlan said Sunday's announced suspension of consular services means Canadian citizens who need emergency passports to leave Sudan likely have no chance of getting them, because Ottawa deemed it too risky to keep a scaled-down operation running in the country.

He said many dual nationals likely have expired passports or insufficient paperwork to get on a flight.

Some registered Canadians likely work for the United Nations or aid organizations, who can help extract them, but many will be private citizens with family ties to Sudan who will be left to their own devices.

Reports from Sudan's Arqin border crossing with Egypt suggest 30 packed coaches were trying to reach safety.

Sudan experienced a “near-total collapse” of countrywide internet and phone connections Sunday, according to the monitoring service NetBlocks.

Coghlan said many Sudanese will likely feel let down by western countries, particularly those critical of how the world handled the heads of the two duelling forces ever since an October 2021 coup d'état.

"The signal that's been sent there is (that) there is a perception of people leaving the sinking ship," he said.

"That's how it looks, a sense of abandonment, for sure."

The federal government is not evacuating its locally hired Sudanese staff, saying it is "looking at all possible options to support them."

Coghlan said the issue of how to handle locals is always sensitive.

"The harsh reality is they are typically left to their own devices," he said.

"That's controversial within Global Affairs (Canada), out of a sense that we depend on these people 100 per cent."

Last summer, the Liberals came under fire over allegations that Canada did not heed intelligence warnings about the safety of its Ukraine embassy's locally engaged staff ahead of Russia's February 2022 full-scale invasion. The allegations, which have not been proven, include claims that other western countries had evacuated Ukrainians listed as targets by Moscow.

Coghlan said the current Sudan conflict, unlike the Ukraine invasion and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, does not have a focus on western policy.

If anything, Coghlan said Egypt and the United Arab Emirates likely have the most sway over resolving the upheaval, given the apparent support of Cairo for the Sudanese Armed Forces, and the Emirates for the RSF.

"It's a question of how much leverage do they want to exert," he said.

"Neither the SAF nor the RSF are the good guys here; neither of them deserve any support or any credibility."

Coghlan said the conflict raises stark questions about what countries like Canada have done over the years to build up democracy in Sudan.

He said western countries should have sanctioned both generals leading the two militias, and Canada could have funded civil-society groups that would eventually pose a political alternative.

"There are a lot of articulate and very brave civilians out there; a lot of people have been out demonstrating, women in particular," he said.

"But being civilians, they're not necessarily organized into blocks or leaders. So the default reaction of the international community is, 'we'll talk to the guys who've got the guns.'"

Coghlan said the end result is likely to involve more countries getting involved in a proxy war.

"The risk is the longer this goes on, the two forces … will try to coerce various sectors of the population on ethnic or tribal grounds," he said.

He stressed the situation in Sudan is dynamic and he does not have the full facts surrounding Ottawa's choice to pull out diplomats and end consular services.

"The minister had a very hard decision to make here," he said. "It's very easy to be an armchair quarterback on this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2023.

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