The aircrew sits on the tailgate of the C-130 bound for Sudan
The first RAF Hercules transporter carrying British nationals stranded in war-torn Sudan has landed in Cyprus amid a “complex and dangerous” mission against the clock to save thousands more. The plane collected people from an airfield near the capital Khartoum, with priority being given to families with children, the elderly and people with medical conditions. It was reported that 39 people were on board, ranging in age from babies to over 70.
Around 4,000 Britons have been stranded in the east African country after heavy fighting broke out 10 days ago.
Some 120 British forces – and SAS troops operating undercover – are helping with the evacuation.
They are in a race against time amid fears over whether a 72-hour ceasefire, which began late on Monday, will hold.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “We now have over 100 people on the ground in Sudan. The first flight has already left with British nationals, we’ll have more flights this evening and we’ll have many more into tomorrow.”
Downing Street had earlier said the number of flights leaving the capital was “subject to change”.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the rapidly changing situation was “volatile” with signs a cessation in hostilities had collapsed, but vowed that British troops “stand ready”.
If all UK nationals are extracted it will take at least 40 flights.
Joint Forces board the C-130
A government source said that UK forces are expected to take control of the airfield this morning.
Only British passport holders and immediate family members with existing UK entry clearance are being told they are eligible.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said it was “impossible to predict” how long the opportunity for safe extraction will last.
And in a sign of fresh urgency, the Foreign Office has issued new advice, urging British nationals to get to Wadi Saeedna airfield on the outskirts of Khartoum “as soon as possible”.
It had previously advised to “stay at home” and leave only if called.
Mr Cleverly added: “This is an active conflict, the ceasefire has been announced but we know there have been pockets of violence within previous ceasefires. So this does remain dangerous.”
Britons will also have to reach the airfield themselves, negotiating checkpoints and potential outbreaks of fighting, as no escorts are being provided.
Among hazards is crossing the Blue and White Nile rivers controlled by armed groups.
Rishi Sunak meets with teams coordinating the evacuation of British nationals from Sudan
Two Royal Navy vessels, RAF Cardigan Bay and HMS Lancaster, are being readied amid speculation the Royal Marines could spearhead a seaborne evacuation from Port Sudan on the Red Sea, 500 miles from Khartoum.
Sir Nicholas Kay, a former British ambassador to Sudan, warned that the situation during the ceasefire remains “precarious”. He said: “The security situation can change very quickly, the command and control over forces isn’t complete and there is no trust between the two sides so they might kick off again.”
Today there were unconfirmed reports that the Sudanese army had breached the ceasefire.
Conflict between the two main factions of the military regime erupted on April 15 when clashes broke out in Khartoum and Darfur regions. More than 500 people have been killed and 4,000 injured so far.
Many British nationals have spent days locked inside with scarce food and drink and no electricity or wi-fi.
Some managed to flee on flights operated by other countries including Germany, Italy, Spain and France, which have already rescued hundreds.
A British businessman, who works in Sudan, fled at the weekend with the help of the French and told the Daily Express: “I cannot describe the feeling of being safer. Incredibly, I’m still alive. It’s a raging war there.”
The chaotic scenes around civilian evacuation are eerily similar to those that unfolded in August, 2021, when Brits and eligible Afghans tried to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban offensive and fall of the Afghan government. It came after 20 years of UK military involvement in the country.
Colonel Richard Kemp, the former British Army Commander who led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: “The killing of an Egyptian diplomat in Khartoum shows the real dangers foreigners, as well as locals, are facing, including our own soldiers who are putting their lives at risk each day they are on the ground.”
There are also fears large numbers could try to force their way onto flights, as was witnessed in Kabul when British troops struggled to control angry crowds almost two years ago.
The Prime Minister defended the UK’s approach to the rescue mission amid criticism that the Foreign Office is failing those stuck in Khartoum. The Government evacuated diplomatic staff two days before a full evacuation of British nationals began.
Asked about accusations that the government is not helping citizens in the capital, Mr. Sunak said: “I’m pleased that we were actually one of the first countries to safely evacuate our diplomats and our families. And it was right that we prioritized them because they were being targeted. The security situation on the ground in Sudan is complicated, it is volatile and we wanted to make sure we could put in place processes that are going to work for people, that are going to be safe and effective.”
The war centers on a power struggle between Sudan’s army commander, and de facto leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, the head of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group. He was deputy head of the ruling council until it was dissolved. The army and RSF staged a coup in 2021 after long-time ruler Omar al Bashir was overthrown after an uprising two years earlier.
But relations broke down during negotiations to integrate and form a civilian government.
Mr Cleverly said contact had been made with leaders of the two factions “calling on them to allow British nationals, dual nationals and minors to be evacuated”.
Nationals have been warned that all travel within Sudan is “conducted at your own risk”.
The evacuation plan involves aircraft used to rescue diplomats from Sudan, with the RAF deploying A400M and C-130 Hercules transport planes with flights taking place from and to Larnaca airport.
A processing center at the airfield is being run by staff from the Foreign Office and Border Force after the entire embassy team was evacuated over safety fears.
The airlift to rescue British nationals and dual citizens from Sudan is a race against time, with a precarious 3-day ceasefire that could break down at any moment, potentially halting the operation.
Plans for an evacuation from Sudan, like every other unstable country, have been on the shelf for years, but they can only ever provide a starting point in any war zone, where chaos and confusion are always the order of the day. We saw much the same in Afghanistan two years ago, and that was following our own pre-planned withdrawal.
The Government has been criticized for failing to evacuate as quickly as other European countries, but the problem is on an altogether different scale with many more British passport holders in Sudan than most other nations, as a result of our historic connections. An estimated 4,000 British nationals are living in the country, mostly in the capital, Khartoum. But for many it’s their home, and they don’t want to leave despite the violence which has no end in sight.
Getting even half the entitled citizens out in the next couple of days will be very difficult, and the hope will be to get the ceasefire extended. British special forces are on the ground in Sudan and their mission is to gain intelligence on the developing situation, to assist the evacuation and if necessary try to rescue nationals in imminent danger. An airfield north of Khartoum is being used for the evacuation, as the city’s main airport, which has been under shell fire and air strikes, is currently in the hands of the rebels and out of action.
Regular forces, including Paratroopers from 16th Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, alongside French and German soldiers, are securing the Wadi Seidna airfield and processing evacuees as they board RAF planes that will fly them to the British sovereign base in Cyprus. As word spreads about the evacuation, there is always the likelihood that large numbers of people who are not entitled to be taken out try to force their way through, scenes we witnessed at Kabul airport in 2021. We may therefore see our troops caught up in heated crowd control around the airfield.
It is up to those who want to leave to make their own way from wherever they live to Wadi Seidna, despite the problems of communicating with them as the internet and phones are often blacked out. And just driving the 18 miles from the capital to the airfield is fraught with difficulties, with bridges out and multiple checkpoints obstructing movement.
Despite the ceasefire there are reports of heavy fighting as well as looting, car hijackings and assaults. The killing on Monday of an Egyptian diplomat in Khartoum shows the real dangers foreigners as well as locals are facing, including our own soldiers, who are putting their lives at risk every day they are on the ground.
Although General Dahran’s Sudanese armed forces seem to have the upper hand at the moment, especially in Khartoum, the rebel Rapid Support Forces under General Dagalo appear determined to continue fighting and it is quite possible this violence might erupt into a protracted full-blown civil war. That could cause hundreds of thousands to flee and impact the entire region.
- Colonel Richard Kemp, former British Army Commander