A German plane airlifted dozens of Canadians out of Sudan Monday and a Canadian C-17 transport plane in the region is on standby to help more escape the country as the conflict in the East African country escalates.
Global Affairs Canada has provided very little information on efforts to get Canadian citizens, or even its own staff, out of Sudan.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provided a limited update Monday afternoon at a photo-op with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Ottawa.
“I just heard earlier today that a German plane lifted off from Khartoum with one German citizen on it and 58 Canadian citizens,” he said Monday.
“We have a C-17 in the region too, and we will be airlifting as well.”
Trudeau added that the recent airlift is an example of great co-operation between Canada and Germany.
Heavy gunfire and thundering explosions rocked Khartoum Monday in continued fighting between the country’s military and a rival paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces.
More than 420 people, including at least 273 civilians, have been killed and more than 3,700 wounded since the fighting began April 15,after power-sharing negotiations between the two sides rapidly deteriorated.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said earlier on Monday that Canada was working with “like-minded countries” to help citizens who remain in Sudan flee the country.
Joly said Global Affairs Canada is trying to contact all Canadians in Sudan who have registered with the government, and she repeated calls for anyone who hasn’t yet done so to get in touch immediately.
One Canadian in Khartoum, Waddaha Medani, said she was sent an email from the Canadian government at 2:45 a.m. local time Monday, telling her to “reserve a seat on an evacuation flight” being planned for as early as noon that day.
But because the country’s internet and phone services largely collapsed this weekend, she only got the email later that afternoon, and said had not heard back directly as of Monday night from the Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa.
“We’re already frustrated, we already don’t know what’s happening and what’s going to happen. And the communication is basically poor,” she said in an interview.
The 29-year-old said she was left mulling whether or not to make a dangerous trip Tuesday morning to an airbase on the outskirts of the city, where her sister in Ottawa got wind of an apparent evacuation flight.
“It’s not safe at all. You’re literally taking the chance. You don’t know if you’re going to make it or not. That’s how it is,” Medani said.
“They keep saying there’s a ceasefire at the moment. However they’re not really respecting it. We still hear gunshots.”
Almost 1,600 Canadians were formally registered in Sudan as of Saturday, but experts believe the number of Canadians in the country is likely much higher.
People in the country are facing a harrowing search for safety in the constantly shifting battle of explosions, gunfire and armed fighters looting shops and homes. Food and fuel are leaping in price and harder to find and hospitals are near collapse.
Amid that chaos, a stream of European, Mideast, African and Asian military aircraft flew into Khartoum all day Sunday and Monday to extract foreign nationals who were moving past combatants at the city’s tense front lines.
France secured use of a military base on the outskirts of Khartoum to use as an extraction point for nearly 500 people of various nationalities who made their way there in their own vehicles or using private security firms.
Others drove hundreds of miles to the Port of Sudan on the country’s east coast, where boats can depart to cross the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and where some nations are operating flights.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington has placed intelligence and reconnaissance assets along the overland evacuation route from the capital to the port to help protect convoys of evacuees. He said the U.S. does not have any troops on the ground.
Yet U.S. special operations forces carried out a precarious evacuation at the American Embassy in Khartoum on Sunday, sweeping in and out of the capital with helicopters on the ground for less than an hour. No shots were fired and no major casualties were reported.
Canada suspended consular services in the country Sunday, saying Canadian diplomats would “temporarily work from a safe location outside the country” while still trying to help citizens in Sudan.
While Ottawa has not explained how its diplomats left Sudan, the New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. special forces evacuated six Canadian diplomats, along with 70 American diplomats and some from other countries.
The BBC, meanwhile, reported Canadians were among a group evacuated by sea to Saudi Arabia.
Global Affairs Canada has yet to answer questions sent Sunday morning about those reports. On Monday afternoon, the Department of National Defence referred questions to Global Affairs, saying that an update should be issued shortly.
As of August 2022, the Khartoum embassy had six Canadian staff and 12 who were locally hired, according to data filed by the department with a Senate committee.
Ottawa is not evacuating its locally hired Sudanese staff, and says it is looking at all possible options to support them.
For many Sudanese people, the ongoing airlift is a terrifying sign that international powers, after failing repeatedly to broker ceasefires, only expect a worsening of the fighting that has already pushed the population into disaster.
The military has appeared to have the upper hand in fighting in Khartoum, but the Rapid Support Forces still controls many districts in the capital and the neighbouring city of Omdurman, and has several large strongholds around the country. With the military vowing to fight until the group is crushed, many fear a dramatic escalation.
The latest nominal ceasefire, which brought almost no reduction in fighting, was due to run out Monday evening.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a “catastrophic conflagration” that could engulf the whole region. He urged the 15 members of the Security Council to “exert maximum leverage” on both sides in order to “pull Sudan back from the edge of the abyss.”
Joly has spoken with her counterparts in both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates about the need for peace. Cairo has strong links with the Sudanese Armed Forces, and the Emirates have ties to the RSF.
Independent MP Kevin Vuong, a former Liberal, criticized the government for the lack of information it was providing on Monday.
“How’s that coming along? Advising people to shelter in place with no embassy, food or water is not a viable solution,” he said during question period in the House of Commons.
—Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press