Ottawa airlifted Canadians and citizens of other countries out of Sudan on two flights Thursday in its first evacuations after days of criticism of the federal government’s slow response to getting planes into the country.
The flights, however, are not reaching capacity because of constraints on the ground preventing people from getting to the airport north of the capital city of Khartoum, according to Julie Sunday, an assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs.
“There are concerns about leaving in darkness to get to the airport,” she said. “Secondly, we are hearing that there is increasing amounts of extortion on the route. And so this is a barrier to people going.”
Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, said more evacuation flights are planned, but added that he was not able to provide more details because of security concerns.
Thursday’s flights carried 45 and 73 people, far below space on each plane for 100 evacuees. There were only seven Canadians on the initial flight, with the rest from other countries. On the second flight, there were 30 Canadian citizens and seven permanent residents and 21 dependents of citizens or permanent residents, the federal government said.
Vice-Adm. Auchterlonie said Thursday the Canadian military was transporting evacuees to Djibouti and then they were being taken by charter flights to Nairobi.
He defended Ottawa’s reaction to the unfolding crisis in Sudan, saying the Canadian Armed Forces and Global Affairs had been for some time tracking the growing conflict in the East African country, where a power struggle between two rival generals broke into heavy fighting on April 15.
He said the number of trouble spots Canada must monitor is growing, including a number of crises on the African continent. “You’re clearly tracking the global security situation becoming increasingly volatile and complex, moving fluidly and unpredictably, at an increasing pace.”
The Department of National Defence and Global Affairs met about 12 days ago after the initial outbreak of hostilities in Sudan, Vice-Adm. Auchterlonie said. “At that point we started planning in earnest and moving our force forward.”
Two hundred Canadian soldiers have been dispatched to the region to help with evacuations. The frigate HMCS Montreal and the supply ship MV Asterix are near Port Sudan to assist as required.
The White House on Thursday warned all Americans to leave Sudan within the next 24 to 48 hours because of violations to a shaky ceasefire. Armed fighters rampaged through a main city in the Darfur region of the country, battling each other and looting shops and homes, residents said.
The two sides accepted a 72-hour extension of the truce late Thursday. The agreement, brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia, has not stopped the fighting but created enough of a lull for tens of thousands of Sudanese to flee to safer areas and for foreign countries to evacuate hundreds of their citizens by land and sea.
More than 1,730 Canadian citizens in Sudan have registered their presence in the country with Global Affairs. Right now, more than 475 people have requested evacuation. These are not all Canadian citizens or permanent residents, and the number has dropped by more than 220 since Wednesday.
Since fighting broke out, about 245 Canadian citizens have left Sudan through all means, including flights operated by allied countries. At least 11 other countries – including the United States, Britain, Germany and France – have operated evacuation flights out of Sudan earlier this week.
Ottawa has cautioned it will only arrange evacuation flights for Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family from Sudan, although it will carry foreign nationals at the request of allies.
It is a long-standing government policy that Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families are responsible for funding their own flights home from a third country after being airlifted out of danger, Ms. Sunday of Global Affairs said.
One notable exception to this policy, she said, was in early 2020 after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when Ottawa flew Canadians and permanent residents all the way back to Canada.
Ms. Sunday said if Canadians cannot afford to pay upfront for flights from third countries, Ottawa will check whether they qualify for emergency loans. She said Ottawa had already approved more than 30 loans to 70 individuals worth a total of more than $170,000.
For its evacuations, Canada is using an airfield controlled by the Sudanese military about 22 kilometres north of Khartoum.
So far the Canadian military has not used its massive C-177 Globemaster planes because of the state of the available runway, Vice-Adm. Auchterlonie said.
It is only using its smaller CC-130J Hercules aircraft, which have a better capacity for rough landings, he said.
The runway is “getting pretty chewed up” by repeated evacuation landings and is being repaired constantly, he added.
With reports from Associated Press and Reuters