Sudan: How do you evacuate thousands of people from a war zone?

The UK government has said urgent rescue efforts are underway to rescue thousands of trapped British nationals in Sudan. Romilly Weeks reports

The Ministry of Defence is working with the Foreign Office to rescue British nationals, but the situation remains perilous and many Brits in Sudan say they feel they have been abandoned.

Now, with a tense truce seeming to hold, the government has three days to pull out thousands of people.

But how do countries rescue citizens from a country as large - and currently as volatile - as Sudan?

Ministers will not comment on exact details of the evacuation mission for security reasons, but here is what we do know.

The evacuation plan

James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, cut short a Pacific tour in order to return to London on Friday to focus on coordinating Britain's response to the Sudan crisis.An emergency COBRA meeting was called to discuss a diplomatic evacuation plan. On Sunday, 30 British Embassy staff were pulled out of Sudan in an operation, which involved more than 1,200 personnel from the British Army, Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The mission to rescue civilians is more complicated, ministers say, due to the lack of a British military presence on the ground. Inserting foreign troops onto Sudanese soil as the country stands on the brink of civil war would risk inflaming an already fragile situation.

The volatility of the situation on the ground in Sudan is also making an evacuation more dangerous.

British citizens must register

British nationals have been told to stay indoors and wait to be contacted about evacuation plans.

The Foreign Office is aware of those who have registered their presence in the country and say they will be contacted.

British nationals who have not registered yet are being asked to do so here.

Citizens of different nationalities fleeing from Sudan sit inside a Spanish Air Force aircraft on its way to Madrid on Monday. Credit: Spanish Defence Ministry/AP

How will people get out of Sudan?

The UK will run evacuation flights for British nationals from an airfield outside Khartoum.

A team of British troops were understood to have been flown into Port Sudan to scope out the options for any rescue mission of civilians.

It is thought that if used, RFA Cardigan Bay – currently in Bahrain, and HMS Lancaster – in India, would supplement possible flights out of Sudan.

But Port Sudan is some 500 miles from Khartoum, the capital, where most of the fighting is concentrated, and the road to safety remains dangerous. The US said Washington had placed intelligence and reconnaissance assets along the evacuation route from Khartoum to Port Sudan but there are no US troops on the ground.

Prospects of airlifting people out of Sudan had been complicated by the fact most major airports have become battlegrounds and movement out of the capital has proven perilous.

Priority would be given to families with children, the sick and the elderly.

People are being flown to Cyprus where arrangements will be made to fly the evacuees back home.

Jordanians evacuated from Sudan arrive at a military airport in Amman, Jordan Credit: AP

How do people get to evacuation points?

The government has been clear that people in Sudan who want to leave will need to get to the airfield at their own risk.

Despite the cease-fire, which is aimed at establishing humanitarian corridors to allow citizens and residents to access essential resources, healthcare, and safe zones, and evacuate, the temporary peace is uncertain.

"British nationals may be aware of unverified reports of independent convoys planning to depart Khartoum towards Port Sudan. The British Embassy has no involvement with these convoys and any British nationals who attempt to travel in one would do so at their own risk," the Foreign Office said.

Bus stations in Khartoum were packed on Tuesday morning with people who had spent the night there in hopes of getting on a departing bus.

Drivers increased prices, sometimes tenfold, for routes to Port Sudan or the border crossing with Egypt.

Why were diplomats pulled out first?

The UK’s armed forces swooped into Sudan to help British diplomats and their families to escape fighting.

The decision to pull out diplomats before civilians has been criticised.

But Mr Cleverly defended prioritising an evacuation for what is thought to have been a small number of diplomats, arguing it would allow the UK government to strengthen efforts to assist British nationals trapped in Sudan.

People celebrate after being evacuated from Sudan on the Saudi Royal Navy ship as it arrives in Jeddah Port, Saudi Arabia. Credit: AP

Is this evacuation different from Afghanistan?

There have been comparisons with the flight from Kabul in September 2021 but ministers and diplomats have stressed the difference.

The UK government has stated that a more large-scale evacuation could prove a challenge, as Britain lacks the military footprint it had in Afghanistan which saw thousands airlifted out of Kabul during Operation Pitting in 2021.

The situation in Sudan arose very rapidly - within a week it had threatened to spill into civil war.

The operation is further hampered by a lack of British boots on the ground.

Is there an emergency number for people in Sudan?

If you are in Sudan you can contact the FCDO 24/7 helpline at +44 1908 516 666

Select option 2 for consular services for British nationals.

Who to contact if you're concerned for friends and family

If you’re in the UK and worried about a British person in Sudan you can call 020 7008 5000.

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