Ministers under pressure to find safe route for 4,000 national stuck in escalating war
A British military team has been sent to Sudan to investigate whether it could be used to evacuate thousands of UK citizens trapped in the war-torn country, says a defence minister.
Armed forces minister James Heappey confirmed the reports on Monday night, but added that it is “too dangerous” to send British troops to rescue UK citizens from fighting in Sudan as pressure grows on the Government to help those stuck there.
Mr Heappey told Andrew Marr on LBC: “There is indeed a military team in the east of the country in Port Sudan doing a reconnaissance there so that we can present to the Prime Minister all possible options for helping the British nationals who were in Sudan.”
He claimed the situation in Khartoum is “very different” from the 2021 Afghanistan
evacuation, and a plan to deploy armed forces would be “unhelpful and unrealistic”.
Mr Heappey told LBC: “I think people will have the evacuation from Kabul very firmly in mind. That’s the last time we saw this sort of event. But Kabul was very different.”
Asked whether it was simply too dangerous to try to use British forces to extract people, he replied: “Yes. The danger is that other than the very tight and controlled mission that we did Saturday into Sunday to extract the diplomats over which we had a very tight degree of control.
“Beyond that, we would effectively be inserting foreign troops, not just us there’ll be other countries that would want to do it, into the parts of Khartoum that has been the most hotly fought over.”
MPs have warned the Government “time is running out” and swift action must be taken to help UK nationals trapped in Sudan.
Rishi Sunak chaired an emergency Cobra meeting earlier on Monday, but there remain no plans to evacuate British citizens.
RFA Cardigan Bay and HMS Lancaster were being lined up as options to help people out of the war-torn country, where at least 2,000 UK citizens remain after UK diplomats were removed.
Both vessels were believed to be on exercises in the Middle East region.
However, it was thought that it would take several days for them to be in position to take part in a rescue operation.
Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell, who attended the Prime Minister’s Cobra meeting earlier, said ministers would “bend every sinew” to help British citizens in the country if it was possible to do so.
But he warned a concrete plan had not yet been drawn up and urged UK nationals to stay indoors until they hear otherwise.
“The Foreign Office’s messaging has been absolutely consistent throughout. We have said that there is no current plan for evacuation and we are working on finding a plan,” he told Channel 4 News.
“Our strong advice to British citizens is to stay indoors. It’s extremely dangerous out on the streets of Khartoum.
“If they wish to move because they have better information on the ground than we do in the Foreign Office then they may do so, but they do so at their own risk.”
Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns warned “time is running out” as she urged ministers to get on with evacuations “now”.
RFA Cardigan Bay is a Bay-class Landing Ship Dock.
It is described by the Ministry of Defence as an agile and useful vessel, poised and ready to support the Royal Navy with the scope to deploy anywhere in the world.
HMS Lancaster is a a multi-role Type 23 frigate.
It has recently had a major refit and some of the ship’s new equipment includes a new Artisan 3D radar and vastly-improved air-defence capabilities provided by Sea Ceptor.
Readying the two vessels for a rescue mission was first reported in The Times.
It comes as ministers face spiralling pressure on Monday to evacuate Britons from war-torn Sudan as other European nations were flying their citizens to safety.
They were urged to lay out plans within hours on how UK citizens would be flown out of the country in north-east Africa or taken by convoy to a port to board a rescue ship.
Africa minister Andrew Mitchell said the Government was exploring all evacuation options for up to 4,000 UK citizens but added that it was “critical” for the warring parties to agree a ceasefire so that a safe corridor could be established for people to leave the conflict zone. But Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden were among countries already organising rescue flights for their citizens amid fears that the fighting could quickly escalate.
More than 420 people, including 264 civilians, have been killed and over 3,700 wounded in clashes between the Sudanese armed forces and a powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces as two generals fight for power.
As countries rushed to extract their citizens from the capital Khartoum, a German air force plane with 101 evacuees landed in Berlin early today. The German air force has flown out 311 so far from an airfield near Khartoum, the military said. A Dutch military plane with evacuees flew from Sudan to Jordan early today. People from different nationalities, including Dutch nationals, were on board the plane, the Netherlands foreign ministry said.
The French government said its evacuation operations had brought 388 people out of Sudan so far.
Sweden said that all its embassy staff in Khartoum, their families and an unspecified number of other Swedes had been evacuated to nearby Djibouti.
Some nations were taking their citizens out of the country in convoys to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, which is about 500 miles by road north-east of Khartoum.
Britain has evacuated its embassy staff and their families from the capital in an operation which involved more than 1,200 personnel from the Army, Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
But the Government was under growing pressure to do more to rescue UK citizens. Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The reality is we have to get British nationals out.
“If, however, there was to be no evacuation because it’s too dangerous... then we have a moral obligation to tell British nationals as soon as possible that that is the judgment that has been made because they then need to be able to make their own decisions.”
She added that Britons in Sudan were living in “abject fear”, with water and food shortages, and reports that some people were killing their pets “because they are worried they are going to starve”.
One British woman, who did not wish to be named, told how she had rented a bus with relatives to try to get to the border after the mobile phone networks and internet went down, meaning they could no longer get messages from the UK Government.
“Meanwhile, Dutch nationals, Greek nationals, Italian nationals, people we know are being flown from air strips just on the outside of Khartoum to safety,” she added.
Another meeting of Whitehall’s Cobra emergency committee was being held today. Mr Mitchell said the “critical” thing was to get a ceasefire to allow citizens to be rescued but evacuations were also being explored and any opportunity to do so would be seized.
He told Sky News: “We will do everything we can, and I mean everything to get our British citizens out. Every single option is being explored in detail and the moment that it is possible to change the travel advice and move them we will.
“We are looking at every single opportunity to help them, to evacuate, and we will take any opportunity that presents itself to do so.”
He said British diplomats had been in “acute danger” because the two armies in the Sudan conflict were either side of the British embassy and residence, with diplomatic premises being deliberately targeted, and this was why they were evacuated first.
Highlighting the difficulties of getting people out, he stressed that two out of three muster points for people to gather at under a Turkish evacuation plan had come under fire. He added that some UK citizens may decide to flee by their own means, if they deemed it safe to do so, but that the Government at this stage was advising people to stay at home. However, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, told Talk TV: “If a plan does not emerge today I worry that individuals will take it upon themselves to try and make their own way to the border.”
He believes a “safe corridor” for evacuations could be protected by international forces if there is a ceasefire.
He also claimed that both sides of the conflict were being supported by Vladimir Putin’s Wagner Group “private army” as they want to exploit Sudan’s gold to fund his war in Ukraine.
The official advice continues to be for UK nationals to register their presence in Sudan with the Foreign Office and shelter. Both sides in the conflict have a long history of human rights abuses.
The RSF was born out of militias which were accused of atrocities when the government deployed them to put down a rebellion in the western Darfur region in the early 2000s.