External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has plunged into a round of diplomacy to help resolve the Sudan crisis and protect Indians there, meeting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and consulting several foreign ministers as international efforts ramped up on the eve of Ramadan.
“We, of course, have obviously a very strong interest in the matter because there are so many Indians there,” he said on Thursday after his meeting with Guterres.
Jaishankar, who was on his way to a series of visits to Guyana, Panama, Columbia and the Dominican Republic, made an unscheduled stopover in New York to meet Guterres because “you could immediately see that this (Sudan situation) was very serious and a lot of (our) people were trapped by the situation”.
“The UN is at the heart of the efforts to establish a ceasefire. And that is really the key because at the moment, unless there is a ceasefire and unless there are corridors, it is not safe for people to come out,” he told reporters.
Before meeting Jaishankar, Guterres appealed to the religious sentiments of the warring sides for an Eid al-Fitr ceasefire for three days to pave the way for a permanent ceasefire.
Although two previous ceasefire efforts had failed, this time “there is a strong reason – all parties to the conflict are Muslim. We are living in a very important moment in the Muslim calendar. I think this is the right moment for a ceasefire to hold”, he told reporters.
Fighting broke out on April 14 between the military controlled by General Abdel Fattah Burhan, who is also the country’s head, and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.
After a coup in 2021, they had been in a power-sharing arrangement that collapsed over differences on integrating the two forces.
There are about 4,000 Indian citizens in Sudan, and according to the Indian embassy in Khartoum of them, about 1,500 are longtime residents.
An Indian ex-serviceman. Albert Augustine, who was working in Sudan, was killed by a stray bullet.
Jaishankar assured Indians trapped in Sudan that the government was making all-out efforts to get them to safety.
“Our team in Delhi is in continuous touch with Indian citizens in Sudan, advising them saying, you know, ‘It’s very difficult for everybody, but keep calm, don’t take unnecessary risk’,” he said.
“I hope that the efforts, including that led by S-G (Guterres), will lead to something very soon, but we will have to wait and see”, he added.
Jaishankar said that he had spoken about the Sudan situation with foreign ministers Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates and Sameh Shoukr of Egypt, and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, as well as US diplomats.
He said that the focus of the diplomatic efforts first is to get a “workable, on-the-ground observed ceasefire”.
The next step would be to create corridors for movement and assembly points for Indian citizens to be evacuated, he said.
Guterres called the situation “completely outrageous” and said that the “fighting in urban areas is particularly dangerous for civilians, including children, who have repeatedly been forced to shelter in schools and evacuate from hospitals under fire”.
He said that humanitarian operations have become impossible because of attacks on and looting of properties of relief organisations.
He warned, “Targeting humanitarian workers and assets must end. I remind all parties of their obligations under international law, including ensuring the safety and security of humanitarian aid workers”.
Guterres’s Deputy Spokesperson Farzan Haq said that more than 330 people have been killed in the fighting and 3,200 people have been injured according to World Health Organisation.
He added that according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), at least nine children have reportedly been killed and more than 50 children injured.
The RSF is a paramilitary organisation that is made up primarily of a militia known as Janjaweed that fought on behalf of the Sudan government against rebels in the Darfur region.
Burhan and Dagalo collaborated in ousting the reviled dictator Omar al-Bashir, who is now a fugitive from a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for atrocities in the Darfur region in 2019 and carried out a coup against Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in 2021.
The current civil war is a setback to moves to restore democracy that received a boost when the two signed a framework agreement in December with civil groups to transition to civilian rule.
Battered by decades of military coups and civil wars, Sudan’s economy and society have been extremely fragile requiring international assistance to stave off starvation and the latest conflict has made the situation worse.
Under-Secretary-General Martin Griffiths said that 15.8 million people were in dire need of humanitarian assistance.