British nationals are being processed for evacuation at an airfield in Sudan after an RAF mission was launched during a “volatile” ceasefire brokered between the warring factions.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said around 120 British troops are supporting the operation at the Wadi Saeedna airfield, near the capital, Khartoum.
He told MPs on Tuesday that Royal Marines are scoping out a possible seaborne evacuation from the more “benign environment” of Port Sudan, some 500 miles from the capital.
British passport holders are being urged to make their way to the airfield, where they will be able to board flights to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus before being flown to the UK.
Priority on the flights will be given to the most vulnerable, with more than 2,000 citizens having registered in Sudan with the Foreign Office.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has warned that it is “impossible” to ascertain how long the pause in fighting will last after the rival generals agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire.
“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.”
Priority on the flights open to British passport holders will be given to the most vulnerable, with more than 2,000 citizens having registered in Sudan with the Foreign Office.
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.
Appearing before a Commons defence committee, Mr Wallace said that the processing centre comprised of Foreign Office and Border Force officials was up and running as of 11am.
The Defence Secretary said the approximately 120 British forces were at the Wadi Saeedna airfield supporting the evacuation.
He said communication is “very patchy” with British dual nationals in Sudan but efforts are being made “where possible” to invite them to the airport.
Mr Wallace said Royal Marines were in Port Sudan to “establish the safety of the area and any options” so “we are in a good position there should we wish to increase support”.
He said it is a “more benign environment”, away from where the fierce fighting has taken place, though the seaborne evacuation would raise challenges over how to get nationals to the port.
HMS Lancaster and the RFA Cardigan Bay have both been sent to the region.
An RAF C-130 Hercules carrier that has travelled back from Khartoum to Cyprus was understood to have been carrying an advance team.
The Prime Minister described the evacuation as “large scale” as he paid tribute to the armed forces, diplomats and Border Force staff carrying out the “complex operation”.
He said Britain will work to “end the bloodshed” in Sudan.
Addressing his Cabinet later, Mr Sunak said there had been a “specific threat” to the safety of diplomats before their evacuation on Sunday.
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”.
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 a little over 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.