Canada planning more evacuation flights from Sudan but situation remains volatile
OTTAWA — Military and foreign affairs officials said Thursday Canada expects to send additional planes to help evacuate people from Sudan in the coming days but the volatile situation on the ground is making planning difficult.
The first two Canadian-operated evacuation planes left Khartoum Thursday carrying 118 people, including both Canadians and citizens of allied nations. Two hundred Canadians had previously escaped with the help of allies including Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Global Affairs Canada says about 1,800 Canadians registered their presence in Sudan and just over 100 Canadians still there have asked for help to flee. Several hundred others have asked for assistance on the ground but currently want to stay.
Most of them in the capital of Khartoum.
Defence Minister Anita Anand was pleased with the news some flights had succeeded but called the whole situation "volatile" with intermittent power and communications systems.
"The situation is extremely dangerous in Sudan and key civilian infrastructure is necessary for any evacuation of non-combatants in this situation," she said.
She said there are 200 Canadian military personnel involved in the missions and they are working as quickly as possible. Two Canadian navy ships are in in the vicinity but movement to the sea by land is risky.
Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, said for now allied planes are not being targeted.
"We will continue evacuations as long as we can support Global Affairs Canada — that being said, it's a very tenuous situation on the ground," he said.
Violence erupted in Sudan last week between its army and a paramilitary force.
At least 512 people, including civilians and combatants, have been killed since April 15, with another 4,200 wounded, according to the Sudanese Health Ministry. The Doctors’ Syndicate, which tracks civilian casualties, has recorded at least 295 civilians killed and 1,790 wounded.
A ceasefire has brought some calm, though the fighting continues. Auchterlonie said Canada and its allies are concerned the end of that ceasefire Thursday night may bring an escalation in violence.
Already the two flights Canada has successfully flown out were not full because of increasing extortion of people who are trying to flee to the main airfield in Khartoum.
"There are concerns about leaving in darkness to get to the airport," said Julie Sunday, the assistant deputy minister for emergency management at Global Affairs.
"All of our allies have noted to us that they have faced the same issues."
Canada has been criticized for a slow response to the situation, but officials at a technical briefing for reporters Thursday said the suddenness of the violence took them by surprise. Auchterlonie said intelligence reports first indicated the situation in Khartoum was deteriorating about 12 days ago.
"We've had Canadian Armed Forces on the ground in excess of a week at this point, including our special operations forces," he said.
"So just to counter the information that may be out there, the fact is we're monitoring globally, working with our allies and partners and across government, to ensure we're tracking situations around the world."
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said she was with her G7 nation counterparts in Japan when the violence escalated and they began working on a response immediately.
It's of little comfort to Canadians who found themselves trapped as the fighting erupted. Mohamed Hassan was set to return home to Toronto on April 15, the same day fighting spilled into the streets of Khartoum.
The 45-year-old filmmaker registered with Global Affairs Canada but said a week passed without an evacuation plan.
He said he could hear gunshots, mortar shells and low-flying planes from his family’s home in Omdurman, a city in the capital region.
"The response I got from the Canadian government — I felt abandoned, I felt helpless. And nobody was going to do anything for me, so I had to do what I had to do," Hassan said.
His family joined thousands of others headed north to Egypt. After several failed attempts they were able to arrange for a bus, and the harrowing trip took six days.
"There are no words to describe the experience of terror, horror and misery and fear for my life," he said in an interview from Cairo, where he arrived on Thursday.
Cash-strapped with limited flight options, he is staying with family and trying to find a way to Toronto.
"I’m just in communication and contact with my family waiting for them to try to send me money. I don’t even have money now," he said.
Global Affairs is helping evacuees get to a safe third country. Canadians can apply for emergency loans to help them get home, and about $170,000 has been handed out to around 70 people so far.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press, Jordan Omstead in Toronto and Keith Doucette in Enfield, N.S.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press