Britain’s ambassador to Sudan was away from the war-torn country on a break when violence broke out, officials have confirmed. Giles Lever – previously deputy head of mission in Kabul, Afghanistan – was one of several diplomats who took annual leave during Ramadan, when fighting erupted in Khartoum. His second-in-command was also on holiday at the time.
Meanwhile, up to 4,000 desperate British nationals are understood to be stranded in Sudan, where more than 400 people have been killed.
The Britons include 71 NHS doctors who say they have “lost all hope” of being evacuated.
The Foreign Office was said to have been taken by surprise when violence erupted following a power struggle between Sudan’s de-facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Rapid Support Forces chief General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
Officials had believed fighting was unlikely in the lead-up to Eid, the Muslim festival celebrating the end of the Ramadan fasting period.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has chaired an emergency Cobra meeting in an attempt to secure the evacuation of trapped Britons in the African nation.
Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell has told MPs the safety of UK citizens in Sudan was the Government’s “utmost priority”.
He said: “Our ability to support British nationals has not been impacted by the relocation of British embassy staff.
“The evacuation team will continue to operate from a neighbouring country alongside the Foreign Office in London. We are asking all British nationals in Sudan to register their presence with us. The roughly 2,000 registered with us already are being sent – sometimes with great difficulty – at least daily updates by text and email.
“This step helps enable us to remain in contact with them whilst we find a safe passage from Sudan.”
British troops flew to the Port Sudan, on the Red Sea on a reconnaissance mission yesterday.
But it does not mean a rescue is imminent. The 500-plus mile route to Port Sudan from Khartoum, where most Britons are thought to be, is long and difficult. The UK is understood to be preparing warships HMS Lancaster and RFA Cardigan Bay to evacuate thousands.
It has been confirmed that five British citizens were among 199 evacuees from Sudan who arrived aboard a Saudi Arabian ship at the country’s Naval Base in Jeddah yesterday.
Cecille El-Beleidi from the British Consul-General said: “A number of British nationals have made their way from Sudan to Jeddah. They have been met by British diplomats and are receiving the full consular services.”
The stranded NHS medics begged the Government to act fast. They formed a WhatsApp group as the conflict escalated. But Dr Reem Taha, 35, a junior doctor in South Yorkshire, said she had lost contact with most of them when the internet went down.
She said: “I think they have lost all hope. The last communication I had from one doctor on Sunday evening was that he was thinking of fleeing through Egypt.” Tory MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, warned: “Time is running out. We need to do the evacuation now.”
Mr Mitchell said the Government was exploring all evacuation options but it was “critical” warring parties agreed a ceasefire to establish a safe corridor out of the conflict zone.
Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and Jordan have also mounted rescue flights.
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