UK Government questioned as Sudan evacuation planes leave half empty
The UK Government has responded to increasing pressure over its decision to initially evacuate only diplomatic staff and their families from conflict-ridden Khartoum, while failing to offer any definitive evacuation programmes to an estimated additional 4,000 remaining UK nationals currently sheltering under siege in the country.
The airwaves were awash Monday and Tuesday with families describing how they felt ‘abandoned’ by the British consular services and the UK Government. The advice to ‘stay put’, to remain indoors and not to travel out onto the streets of Khartoum or any other city involved in the fighting was not augmented by any proposal by the British government for their safe evacuation.
'A very specific threat to the diplomatic community'
The Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell speaking on Monday 24th April, defended the decision to evacuate the approximately 1200 diplomatic staff and their families saying that there had been:
‘a very specific threat to the diplomatic community…we have a specific duty of care, a legal duty of care, to our own staff and our diplomats.’
The Secretary of State, made clear that the government felt unable to offer any promises that it could or would evacuate the remaining non-diplomatic UK citizens under the current circumstances. He said:
‘The situation is absolutely desperate and a ceasefire is required...The only advice that Britain can give to people is to stay indoors because that is the safe option...Many of the Brits there are very creative and know the situation on the ground, and if — at their own risk — they determine there is a way for them to leave their own homes then of course they will take it.’
UK Nationals ponder how to get to an airstrip 30km away
As news broke Tuesday morning 25th April that a new 72 hour ceasefire between the two sides of the conflict had been brokered by the US and that it was expected to hold, information also started to filter into the news that British military planes were on standby to airlift UK citizens to safety. The short notice announcement clearly did not reach all UK citizens in Sudan, who were having to cope with not just food and water shortages, but intermittent access to internet or any other form of communication. Even those that were informed and wished to evacuate remained completely lost as to how they were meant to navigate through a field of conflict without support to get to an airport 30km away.
The UK Defence Secretary when asked on LBC radio late on Tuesday, responded to questions about this issue by suggesting that ‘Brits’ trapped in Khartoum amid fierce fighting should take a cab to the airfield 30km outside the city if they cant get a car.
The UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverley made the following statement to the media on Tuesday morning, as he admitted that UK nationals would be required to make their own treacherous journey to the airfield. He said:
‘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’
Rescue Planes leave half empty
The net result, despite an open invitation for any British passport holder to make their way to the airport to be airlifted, was that the first batch of British planes leaving the airfield on Tuesday afternoon and evening left half empty.
As the first planes arrived in Cyprus with evacuees, the UK Prime Minister addressed the press:
‘We actually have two more flight Tuesday evening and then many more into tomorrow which will be able to evacuate several hundred people if they can make their way to the airfield. But that’s why it’s so important that we contact everybody. And that’s what the team here (at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) are doing. There’s over a thousand people contacted, hundreds spoken to directly and as they can make their way to the airfield, we have the team on the ground there to process them’
Home Secretary Suella Braverman: [our actions are] 'context specific'
Speaking in the morning of Wednesday 26th April on Sky News the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman confirmed that British military planes had so far evacuated between 200 and 300 British citizens from war-torn Sudan, she said:
'We’ve put in over 1,000 armed forces personnel who are out there. The UK has a very different scenario and community and cohorts in terms of numbers compared to other countries. The UK government has been overseeing and monitoring the situation very closely for weeks now. A decision has been made on the back of proper planning, proper assessment of the security and risks posed in Sudan. We are now removing, relocating, British nationals. This is a standard practice in terms of the advice that the Foreign Office is issuing to British nationals. It is context specific. It is highly dependent on the very sensitive and changing and fast moving circumstances in Sudan. I’m not going to sit here in a studio in London and dictate what should be happening there on the ground.’