Article published in The Daily Express, 25 April 2023. © Richard Kemp
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 start 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 criticised 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 won’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 hard, 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 at present 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 each 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.