udan remains in a “dangerous, volatile and unpredictable” state as the RAF used a ceasefire to launch an operation to evacuate British citizens, the Foreign Secretary has said.
James Cleverly said UK nationals would have to make the risky journey to the airbase near Khartoum without a military escort and warned it is “impossible” to know how long the pause in the fierce fighting will last.
An RAF C-130 transport carrier was seen on flight trackers leaving an airbase north of the capital on Tuesday morning as the operation was under way.
Priority on the flights open to British passport holders will be given to the most vulnerable, with around 2,000 citizens having registered in Sudan with the Foreign Office.
Around 1,400 military personnel are involved in the evacuation effort, the PA news agency understands.
Britain was seizing on the time bought by the announcement of a 72-hour ceasefire agreed by the two rival generals in Sudan to begin evacuations, despite facing calls to start sooner.
Mr Cleverly warned the pause is fragile after speaking directly or through intermediaries with faction leaders as he called for them to allow British nationals to be evacuated.
“It is important to remember that ceasefires have been announced and have fallen apart in the past so the situation remains dangerous, volatile and unpredictable,” he told broadcasters.
“It is impossible to predict how long the ceasefire will last. It is impossible to predict how long any other route to evacuation will remain open.”
The Foreign Secretary warned UK nationals that they must make their own way to the flights.
“We have said that we are unable to provide escorts from where British nationals are to the airhead, they will have to make their own way there – as indeed has been the case for the nationals of other countries,” he said.
Mr Cleverly also defended the Government from suggestions it should have carried out evacuations of citizens sooner, as European allies had succeeded in doing.
“The circumstances for each individual nation are different. There are considerably more British nationals in Sudan than other countries have got,” he said.
The evacuation plan involves similar aircraft to those used to rescue diplomats from Sudan – A400M and C-130 Hercules transport planes – with flights taking place from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The Government has begun a large-scale evacuation of British passport holders from Sudan on RAF flights.
“Priority will be given to the most vulnerable, including families with children and the elderly.
“I pay tribute to the British armed forces, diplomats and Border Force staff carrying out this complex operation.”
He said Britain will work to “end the bloodshed” in Sudan, which was triggered by two rival generals engaging in a powerstruggle, and support a democratic government.
Families with children or elderly relatives, or individuals with medical conditions, will be prioritised for the flights.
Only British passport holders and immediate family members with existing UK entry clearance are being told they are eligible.
Nationals have been warned that all travel within Sudan is “conducted at your own risk”.
The Foreign Office said other exit routes are being considered, with two British military ships, RFA Cardigan Bay and HMS Lancaster, being lined up for possible evacuations.
A team of British troops is understood to have flown into Port Sudan to check out the options.
Sir Nicholas Kay, a former British ambassador to Sudan, warned that the situation during the ceasefire remains “precarious”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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.”
The former diplomat warned that moving around Khartoum could be “very difficult”, with the bridges crossing the Blue and White Nile rivers being controlled by the armed groups.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that a three-day ceasefire had been brokered. It would extend a nominal truce over Ramadan that did little to stop fighting but did facilitate some evacuations.
More than 420 people, including at least 273 civilians, have been killed since fighting began on April 15, and a further 3,700 have been wounded.
The Foreign Office stressed that “senior diplomats” will be supporting the evacuations, after it emerged that British Ambassador to Sudan Giles Lever and his deputy were out of the country when violence broke out in Khartoum.
The latest figure for UK citizens registering with the embassy for evacuation is about 2,000, but the true number of British nationals in Sudan could be higher.
Ministers have been under pressure to get the evacuations under way after a rescue mission of British diplomats was completed over the weekend. European allies have already removed hundreds of citizens.