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Smoke is seen in Khartoum, Sudan, April 22, 2023.Marwan Ali/The Associated Press

A handful of Canadian embassy staff have been evacuated from battle-ravaged Khartoum in a dramatic airlift of international diplomats by helicopter, airplane and ship, but more than 1,590 Canadians remain trapped in Sudan as heavy fighting persists in the capital.

Six Canadian diplomats were among a group evacuated from Khartoum by U.S. Special Forces on Sunday morning, according to a New York Times report. The Globe and Mail repeatedly asked federal officials for details on the evacuation, but there was no response by Sunday evening.

In the nearby country of Djibouti, state television reported that a Canadian military airplane had landed at the country’s main airport, where the tarmac was crowded with aircraft from nearly a dozen countries as part of the logistics for the airlift of foreign embassy staff. Ottawa also sent what it called a “standing rapid deployment team” of Global Affairs Canada (GAC) officials to assist with the evacuation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadian military officers are “planning for various contingencies with partners,” but gave no further details.

“Our diplomats are safe – they have been extracted and are working from outside the country – and we are looking at every possible option to support our locally engaged staff,” Mr. Trudeau said in a tweet on Sunday. He confirmed that Canada had suspended its embassy operations.

“We are also looking at every possible option to support Canadians in Sudan,” he said. “We are extremely concerned by the dangerous and rapidly evolving situation on the ground, and our officials are staying in contact with Canadians affected.”

In a statement on Sunday, GAC said, “Canadian diplomats will temporarily work from a safe location outside of the country.” It did not disclose any details of how the staff were evacuated or where they were taken.

The federal department, in a separate statement, continued to urge Canadians in Sudan to “shelter in a safe place” and keep their doors and windows locked.

“With the airports and airspace closed, no air evacuations from Sudan are possible at this time,” GAC said.

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Several countries were able to evacuate their diplomats with military airplanes and helicopters on the weekend. The United States mobilized three MH-47 Chinook helicopters from its military base in Djibouti. The helicopters landed in Ethiopia, refuelled and flew for three hours to reach Khartoum, where they spent less than an hour on the ground and returned with nearly 100 people.

“The operation was fast and clean,” said Lieutenant-General Douglas Sims, operations director at the U.S. military’s joint staff, in a media briefing.

Khartoum’s international airport has been at the epicentre of fierce fighting since the outbreak of battles on April 15 between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which have killed hundreds of people and injured thousands. The airport is badly damaged and its tarmac is littered with destroyed airplanes. In response, several Western governments sent their evacuation planes to a military airfield, about 30 kilometres from Khartoum, to collect diplomats who had been transported by road from the capital.

A number of foreigners were evacuated by ship from Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The BBC reported that some Canadians were among about 150 people, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, who were evacuated by sea to the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah.

Sudanese-Canadians, struggling to help their family members and friends leave Sudan, said they were glad the Canadian diplomats were evacuated but still hoped the airlift can be expanded.

“I hope Canada helps all Canadian citizens in Sudan to evacuate safely soon,” said Lubna Ahmed of Ottawa. Like others in the Sudanese-Canadian community, she is also calling for an expanded Canadian refugee and family sponsorship program to help Sudanese people find safety.

Bahaeldin Elsahib, a Sudanese-Canadian community leader in Edmonton, said Sunday that he had spent several hours trying to contact family members in Sudan, but communication was sporadic.

His wife, Doha Elsharief, is in Sudan right now, as is his mother, and they reported shooting outside their home at one point.

“Everybody is planning to leave,” Mr. Elsahib said. But supplies are running short. Gas prices have skyrocketed, and he was told it is now selling for the equivalent of nearly $100 a gallon.

Mr. Elsahib said it’s disappointing that Canada has only planned to evacuate its diplomats at this point, but he understands the security situation deteriorated quickly.

Imrad Satti, a board member with the Sudanese Canadian Communities Association, said he has heard of many Sudanese-Canadians who are stuck in the country. He said Canada should work with its allies in the U.S. and Britain on a joint initiative to get their citizens out.

“People aren’t able to sleep,” he said. “We’ve been working night and day to figure out what is going on. It is a very terrifying time.”

Nicholas Coghlan, a former Canadian ambassador to Sudan, said the government’s decision about whether to close its embassy in Khartoum must have been difficult. By keeping a small presence at the embassy, Canada could have tried to co-ordinate further evacuations. Without any staff on the ground, Ottawa will have nobody to process emergency passports for Canadian citizens or to organize convoys for them, he said.

“The symbolism to the broader Sudanese population is also inescapable,” Mr. Coghlan told The Globe. “We are all seen as bailing out.”

But on the other hand, the Canadian embassy is located close to the dangerous centre of the fighting, he said. There would probably be no sense in remaining in Sudan when Canada’s main allies have withdrawn their staff, he added.

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