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[News] Sagittarius! How was the French evacuation operation in Sudan prepared and planned? (v3)

(B2) In recent days, the diplomats of the crisis unit at the Quai d'Orsay, like the French military planners, have slept little. With two main options up your sleeve. The French played the role of first entry for their European colleagues. With brilliance and audacity, if we are to believe the first feedback. Narrative

Gathering before departure (Photo: French Armed Forces Staff)

NB: to facilitate reading, the details of the rotations and the results of the operation have been placed in a separate article, read: Sagittarius, Eva Sierra…! Several rotations ensured by the Europeans. More than 1500 people evacuated.

Preparing for the operation Sagittarius

Intense planning began well in advance at both the diplomatic and military levels. The forces prepositioned in Djibouti were placed on alert, as were certain land units which came to reinforce the forces deployed in Djibouti, with several planes (3 A400Ms and a C130) and a frigate. The operation receives a code name: “Sagittarius”, the sign of fire.

The air option preferred over the land option

Particularly difficult task for planners. None had been chosen beforehand. Two options were thus worked on “simultaneously” by the planners of the Ministry of Defense: an option by road (then by sea), and an option by air. It was ultimately this last option that was chosen. But at the last moment. Circumstances dictated this choice. For reasons, both tactical and practical. Going by road requires a “ large volume of vehicles “, we specify on the side of the ministry of the armies. It's necessary " provide fuel and water supply points " etc. And the " first feedback from the first evacuations » (1) finished convincing Paris that the air route was ultimately the least bad solution. This ultimately proved difficult but practicable (see below). Means have, however, been prepositioned “ in order to keep all the possible ways » we specify to the army general staff. Just in case, a third option has been preserved via Port Sudan: the sea route.

A very complex operation

No one hides it: this operation is " extremely complex swear the diplomats as well as the soldiers. Because " during the truce, the fighting continues ". And because, unlike their American and British comrades, the French have chosen not only to evacuate diplomatic personnel, but also all French citizens. who want it ”, and even certain citizens of “friendly”, “partner” or allied countries. A choice adopted by all the European countries which participate in the operation and coordinate closely with each other.

Many Europeans in French planes

The French should thus take care of nationals of several European countries (Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, United Kingdom, etc.), specified the Quai d'Orsay, but also " from Niger, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopiae, etc. ”, as well as members of the EU delegation. “Many “foreign partners” asked us for assistance et we try to help them in this difficult phase says a diplomat.

Important upstream diplomatic work

All-round contacts were made at the strategic (= political) level. Assured in Paris by the President of the Republic (E. Macron) with his counterparts from Ethiopia and Djibouti, as well as with the belligerents. And the Minister of Foreign Affairs (C. Colonna) with the ministers of Arab countries (United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) — who have contacts with the Sudanese — and her European counterparts and allies from the German A. Baerbock to the American A. Blinken via the Swedes and Belgians. In fact, she had contact “ with almost all of its counterparts confides a diplomat.

Air corridors and truce

It was indeed necessary to reopen the air corridors. The countries (NB: Ethiopia) which had closed the airspace to Sudan have agreed to reopen it. It was also necessary to negotiate with the belligerents, on both sides, General al-Burhan (of the Sudanese armed forces) as well as General Hemedti (of the Sudanese rapid intervention forces). A negotiation which only concerned “ evacuation and establishment of safety conditions » adequate, we hasten to specify at the Quai d'Orsay, to avoid this being seen as a concession made to one or the other of the belligerents. On this point, the military forces present on site adopted a position of “ strict neutrality ».

Locating and regrouping phase

Meanwhile, in Khartoum, the French embassy began to locate its nationals (who wanted to be evacuated) and then regroup them, while allowing the supply of fuel. who is seriously starting to miss on the spot », in water and food. The fall of networks (internet, telephone, etc.) also does not facilitate this work of locating different nationals. The lack of fuel, water, food, with major fighting also complicates the task of the diplomats of the crisis unit and the soldiers responsible for planning evacuations (read: [News] Evacuation of diplomats and citizens in Sudan, a Land Air Sea operation is being prepared).

Setting up the operation: entry first

During the operation, the French played the role that the Americans had assured in Kabul: that is to say entry first, control and opening of the airport, as well as its proper functioning.

A European evacuation hub from Wadi Sayyidna

During the night from Saturday to Sunday, an opening appears. A first plane (C-130) takes off from the Djibouti air base (BA 188 for short). Direction: the west and the military airport of Wadi Sayyidna. An airport created in the 1940s by the Americans and then the British and used by the Sudanese Air Force. Remained in good condition, unlike that of Khartoum which was partly destroyed, it is under the control of regular forces. it will be the one on which the French and other forces (United Kingdom, Germany) will rely to carry out their operation. Around 150 soldiers, mainly special forces, are mobilized on the French side for this first phase of the operation.

Recognition & protection

A first detachment about 100 people » is projected onto the airport. It is made up of protection and reconnaissance elements, equipped with drones, logistical and medical resources. The first plane to land has a primary and essential task: “ ensure the first contacts with the Sudanese present » (NB: Sudanese regular forces), check that all security conditions are met to be able to use the airport, starting with the aeronautical level (control and airport routes).

An advanced mini-base

Three other planes (A400M and C-130) follow with vehicles, food, medical equipment, etc. On board: a strategic commodity: water, it's 43° on the ground! and without hydration, no operation. Concretely, this makes it possible to set up a temporary mini-base and to carry out the first reconnaissance in the city. In fact, it is necessary to “ reconnoitre and secure the routes which will be taken to pick up the nationals at all the assembly points (designated by the diplomats) and bring them back to the airport » we specify to the army general staff. Strategically, this makes it possible to validate the air route over the land route. The evacuation operation can begin.

A command and coordination level

This detachment also includes a level of command to lead the operation and coordination » with the forces on the spot (Sudanese) as well as with the other Europeans. “This echelon will then remain on site throughout the operation ". Close coordination is indeed taking place between Europeans and Allies not only in Djibouti but also , (at the tactical level). The Germans, Italians and Swedes have mobilized an equivalent number of soldiers to the French to recover their nationals.

Coordinate take-off slots

It is necessary to closely coordinate departures, arrivals, boarding of different nationals, control at the entrance to the airport, etc. The simple management of landing and takeoff slots on the only available runway is particularly complex. A plane can only leave without its nationals. But bringing them together in a war-torn terrain is not easy.

Pick up nationals in town

One of the most difficult phases begins. It is indeed necessary to collect the various nationals and transport everyone to Wadi Sayyidna, located more than twenty km north of Khartoum. Not easy. A central meeting point was given to all potential evacuees: in front of the French embassy. Then, this requires “ cross the front lines and several urban areas (Bahri, Omdurman).

A perilous journey

It was on this path that a French convoy, leaving from the French embassy in Khartoum, was targeted on Sunday morning. A French special forces soldier was injured (2). Supported by his comrades and a doctor, he was able to be repatriated to a military hospital in France. His days are not in danger, according to the army general staff.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. The convoy where the Qatari ambassador was was reportedly attacked on the road with stolen belongings. Turkey also had to temporarily interrupt this route after explosions took place near the chosen assembly point (in Khartoum).
  2. Point not confirmed first of all neither by Quai d'Orsay nor by the Ministry of the Armed Forces. As a precaution, as the evacuation operation is in progress, it is not a question of incriminating one or the other. The RSF paramilitaries accused indeed the regular forces to have fired. They designate their opponents.

Picture gallery

Updates – April 23, 20 p.m. details on the resources involved on the French side + photos, – April 24, 18 p.m. overall assessment – ​​April 25, 18 p.m.: paper restructured and completed with a second separate paper on the assessment, flight by flight.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).