UK forces were preparing on Wednesday to take over evacuation operations at the airfield near Khartoum that is being used to repatriate foreign nationals from Sudan, as part of a closely co-ordinated international airlift with a “very good rate of flow”.
Brigadier Dan Reeve, who is leading the UK operation, said the Wadi Saeedna airfield had been used to evacuate more than 230 British nationals on Tuesday, and would be able to fly out as many as 500 a day amid an unstable ceasefire that was due to end within 30 hours.
The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office on Wednesday said that, as of 9pm UK time, six RAF flights had carried 536 people out of Sudan. The British effort has carried some non-citizen dependants of UK passport holders, as well as some citizens of other countries.
The first UK passport holders arrived at London Stansted airport from Sudan via Cyprus on Wednesday afternoon.
Speaking to reporters from the British army base in Cyprus, Reeve said citizens of other countries were being repatriated from there and would continue to be after the UK took control of evacuations “very smoothly” from Germany.
Reeve said the airfield, which lies 40km outside the capital and which British nationals have been told to reach in order to join rescue flights, was in a safe area controlled by the regular Sudanese army and that its landing strip was in relatively good condition.
“We have a very good rate of flow,” he said. “I have absolutely the [military] assets that I want to be available to prosecute this operation, and I have many more on standby that I can call upon.”
Reeve said there had been “a queue of all nations’ [citizens], maybe 300 strong” when he had last visited Wadi Saeedna. He said the airfield had “a really good system” for processing arrivals, adding: “Everybody was calm [and] in good spirits.”
Africa minister Andrew Mitchell on Monday estimated that 2,000 of the roughly 4,000 dual UK-Sudanese nationals and 400 UK nationals had told authorities that they wanted help to leave.
Conditions in Sudan have become dire since the outbreak of violence on April 15. The country’s armed forces, led by general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto president, are fighting a group led by vice-president Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Known as Hemeti, Dagalo leads the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group.
Almost 500 people have died in the violence and food, water, medical supplies and power are increasingly in short supply.
Reeve said Wadi Saeedna could handle up to 20 air slots a day, but whether they were all used depended on the number of people that made it to the airfield. Britain is deploying both C-130 Hercules aircraft, which can carry about 100 people, and A400M Atlas planes, which can take about 150.
“If you multiply those 20 slots by the [numbers] that you can fit in different aircraft, that is a very, very large capacity we can shift . . . multinationally,” he said. “But yesterday we just didn’t have that number of people turning up to use up all those slots.”
People in Khartoum have pointed to the dangerousness of the journey to the airfield because of continuing fighting despite the ceasefire, with heavy battles especially in the north and west of the capital. Would-be evacuees have also struggled to secure petrol to make the trip, while the lack of internet access and power has made it difficult to contact those needing help.
Volker Perthes, UN special envoy on Sudan, told the security council on Tuesday that neither side had shown readiness to “seriously negotiate, suggesting that both think that securing a military victory over the other is possible”.
Reeve said the fact that the two forces had been intermingled instead of facing each other across well-defined front lines meant that when the fighting started it “erupted extremely quickly”, with soldiers now regularly “taking pot shots at anyone”.
Home secretary Suella Braverman on Wednesday rejected suggestions from Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, that the UK had been too slow to start its rescue effort, which began two days after some other nations.
“A decision has been made on the basis of proper planning and proper assessment of the risks posed in Sudan,” Braverman told Sky News.