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Q&A: US Troops Positioned for Diplomats' Evacuation Out of Sudan

Q&A: US Troops Positioned for Diplomats' Evacuation out of Sudan
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Q&A: US Troops Positioned for Diplomats' Evacuation out of Sudan

The United States is deploying more troops at its base in Djibouti as it considers whether to evacuate diplomats from Sudan, where a power struggle between two military factions has led to days of violence that has killed more than 330 people.

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, spoke Friday with VOA's White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara about the ongoing fighting in Sudan. He also previewed next week's White House state visit by President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: I'd like to start with Sudan. What's the latest on the evacuation of American diplomats and the deployment of troops to the base in Djibouti?

NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS JOHN KIRBY: There's been no decision to evacuate our diplomats. We're still focused right now on pre-positioning appropriate military capabilities nearby in the region, not in Sudan, just in case there is a decision made to evacuate our embassy.

The bottom line is the situation on the ground in Khartoum is not good. The violence continues, the fighting continues despite both sides calling or urging the other to abide by cease-fires. There's still a lot of violence inside Khartoum, and so it's a very tenuous, very dangerous situation. And as we've said, if you are an American citizen, and you didn't take our warning to leave Sudan and particularly Khartoum, you need to take care of your own safety and security, shelter in place, find a place to stay where you can stay safe and not be moving around.

VOA: So there's no evacuation for American citizens at this point?

KIRBY: There is no expectation that there's going to be a U.S. government evacuation of American citizens. That remains the case right now.

VOA: Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken has called the leaders of both warring parties to push for a cease-fire. Obviously, that hasn't happened. The U.S. has very limited leverage because we have pulled U.S. assistance since the coup in Sudan in 2021. Which countries in the region are you reaching out to, to help push for a cease-fire?

KIRBY: We're talking to the African Union, we're talking to the Arab League. Clearly, we're talking bilaterally with other nations around Sudan in the region who obviously have a stake in making sure that peace and security, stability has a chance there in Sudan. And yes, we are reaching out directly. You've mentioned Secretary Blinken, but there are other lines of communication reaching out directly with the leaders on both sides there, General [Abdel Fattah] Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces and General [Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo] "Hemedti" of the RSF and to urge them to put down their arms, actually put in place a sustainable cease-fire so that humanitarian aid and assistance can get to the people that need it.

VOA: Would the U.S. administration consider any kind of punitive measures to push for a cease-fire?

KIRBY: I don't have any muscle movements to speak to right now. We are focused right now on communicating to both sides they need to put their arms down, they need to stop the fighting. We need to get the ability for people to get access to food and water and medicine and again, to have a discussion about a transition to civilian authority.

VOA: And how concerned are you that this would turn into a proxy war, where outside groups such as the Wagner Group that's already in the region might take opportunity from the chaos?

KIRBY: Obviously, we don't want to see this conflict expand or broaden, and we certainly wouldn't want to see additional firepower brought to bear; that will just continue the violence and continue to escalate the tensions.

VOA: I want to move on to the South Korean president's visit next week. One of the leaks showed that there is concern from the South Koreans that President [Joe] Biden might push President Yoon [Suk Yeol] to supply military weapons, munitions particularly to Ukraine. Has this leak complicated the visit at all?

KIRBY: We are very excited about having our second state visit be the Republic of Korea. President Biden and President Yoon have a terrific relationship. We as a nation have a great relationship with the Republic of Korea, our South Korean allies. And it is an alliance. We have actual alliance commitments with South Korea. And there's an awful lot on the agenda and it won't just be Ukraine.

But there's an awful lot of other things on the agenda, everything from high technology to climate change to certainly threats inside the Indo-Pacific region. Obviously, North Korea will be on the agenda. There's a lot to talk about. And this is a terrific relationship.

VOA: President Yoon said he may be open to providing military support to Ukraine under some circumstances. Is this something that President Biden will push President Yoon for?

KIRBY: This isn't about pushing South Korea at all. It's about having a meaningful conversation about items of mutual shared concern and interest and certainly the war in Ukraine is something that South Korea shares that concern with. I'll let President Yoon speak to what he is or isn't willing to do.

We have said from the very beginning that what a nation decides to do with respect to supporting Ukraine is up to them to decide. It's a sovereign decision. The whole idea of supporting Ukraine, this whole fight is about sovereignty. It's about independence. And how ironic and hypocritical would it be for the United States to dictate terms to a sovereign nation about what they should or shouldn't do.

VOA: Can we expect any kind of announcements in terms of extended deterrence, increasing U.S. strategic assets, any kind of joint operations of nuclear scenarios in the region?

KIRBY: We routinely talk to the South Koreans about the extended deterrence. I'm not going to get ahead of the president or any specific announcements or anything going forward.

VOA: On semiconductors, now that China cannot access U.S. technology but also Japanese and Netherlands technology for semiconductors, they are reaching out to South Korean companies. Is this something that the president will also discuss?

KIRBY: I have no doubt that they'll talk about high technology and the need to keep improving, preserving, maintaining resilient supply chains when it comes to semiconductors. But I won't get ahead of the conversation.

VOA: You mentioned today's meeting in Ramstein, Germany, which marks one year that the Defense Contact Group has been meeting. Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin said this morning that the focus will be on air defense, ammunition and logistics. What does that say in terms of where we are in the war right now and the strategy going forward?

KIRBY: We have evolved the capabilities that we are providing Ukraine ... as the war itself has evolved over time. Here we are past a year. And we know that in the spring when the weather improves, and it's already starting to improve, that we can expect the Russians to want to go on the offensive in some areas, and we don't know exactly where or how they'll do that. But we want to make sure that the Ukrainians are able to better defend themselves against that and if they choose offensive operations of their own, that they've got the capabilities to conduct those.

And you heard Secretary Austin talk about air defense, talk about armor capabilities because we believe that one of the things and they say they need to be better at is combined arms warfare, which is maneuver warfare in open terrain. That means, that requires armor, that requires artillery, that requires some air defense. But he also talked about logistics because that's really the lifeblood of any army in the field, is how do you keep it in the field? How do you sustain it? How do you get him spare parts and food and water and fuel, the kinds of things that they need to maintain operations in a continuous way? So that's got to be front and center as well.

VOA: Last question, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this week said that Ukraine's rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family. At this point, do you see Ukraine to be closer toward becoming a NATO member?

KIRBY: Nothing's changed about our support for the Open Door Policy of NATO. Nothing's changed about that. We continue to support an open door for NATO. But we've also said that any conversation about coming into the alliance has got to be a conversation between the nation in question and the alliance itself.

VOA: But do you see that Ukraine itself has improved on the criteria that it must meet?

KIRBY: Our focus right now with respect to Ukraine is making sure that they can beat back the Russian aggression. That they can be successful on the battlefield so that President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, if and when he's ready to negotiate, he can be successful at the table. That's our focus. We'll let the secretary-general speak for the alliance.