Window to safely airlift people from Sudan closing quickly, Canadian officials say

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Senior officials said Friday they are confident Canada has enough space on its aircraft to evacuate all the citizens, permanent residents and family members who have asked for help to leave Sudan — but the window to safely carry out those flights is closing quickly.

"There are seats for everyone who would like to leave right now," said Julie Sunday, the assistant deputy minister of emergency management at Global Affairs.

Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, the commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command said two Armed Forces flights were on the way to Khartoum by mid-afternoon, where people had been waiting since their flights were cancelled earlier in the day.

Canada's first planned flight of the day was delayed by a mechanical issue with a ramp, which was fixed too late for the Hercules plane to make its scheduled arrival time.

Its second flight was also turned back when the airport was closed because a Turkish plane was shot from the ground, damaging the plane and injuring a crew member.

"The targeting of allied aircraft indicates a shift in the threat assessment under which we are operating," said Auchterlonie.

It's not clear if the plane was deliberately targeted, and neither the Sudanese Armed Forces nor the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces took credit for the shots on Friday. Fighting has continued throughout a ceasefire agreement between the two sides.

"The window to safely extract personnel by air is closing quickly," Auchterlonie said, adding that the condition of the airfield is deteriorating and the military is now looking at second options for evacuations.

He said the United States is trying to open up a safe road network to help people travel the 840-kilometres from Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. But that is a dangerous journey that could take up to 30 hours.

And while fighting has decreased during the ceasefire, if there is an uptick in violence, officials expect another rush of people to the airport.

About 1,800 Canadians notified Global Affairs Canada they were in Sudan.

Sunday said about 400 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families have asked for consular assistance, but only a fraction of them want help leaving the country.

About 300 Canadians have already been flown to safe third countries amid a significant uptick in violence in Sudan over the past two weeks. Others have left on their own, making the journey to neighbouring countries by car or bus.

Global Affairs has more than 100 employees working around the clock, Sunday said, including a standing rapid deployment team, people who must be ready to move within three hours of getting the call.

"We make sure they have visas for particular regions so they can move in very quickly, and they have a very specialized skill set to be able to respond in these crisis scenarios," Sunday said.

Pinning down when to begin such an operation is not a perfect science, Auchterlonie said.

The Armed Forces planned six non-combatant evacuations last year, he said, though most were never carried out.

"Indicators and warning are one thing, but the actual will on the ground is something you can't necessarily test, and this is what happened," he said.

"We were tracking the situation with our partners from Global Affairs and then all of a sudden it escalated quickly."

In October 2021, the heads of the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces orchestrated a coup and arrested the prime minister just weeks before the military was supposed to hand over leadership of the country to civilians.

Negotiations then began for a return to democracy, and the two groups signed a deal in December with pro-democracy and civilian groups. Disagreements continued over how the RSF would be integrated into the military.

The RSF began deploying forces to strategic areas, including the capital, on April 12. Fighting erupted on April 15 near Khartoum and clashes spread throughout the country.

U.S. special forces evacuated American embassy staff on April 16, but at the time said it was too dangerous for the government to help citizens escape. Other countries, including Canada and Germany, scrambled to begin evacuations.

Initially, Canadians were able to flee on planes and boats of allied countries, until the first Canadian military evacuation was able to get to the airport in Khartoum on Thursday.

Allied nations are co-ordinating their approaches, with more than half the 118 passengers on the first two Canadian operated evacuation flight being citizens of other countries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press