Afghanistan evacuation: Flights on ‘war footing’ as deadline looms


A British medical student who fled Afghanistan was told by Taliban guards that he would have been shot dead if the world wasn’t watching – in a terrifying foreshadowing of the fate that could face thousands left behind once western evacuation flights stop.

The 25-year-old, who is now staying at a south London hotel with his wife and asked not to be named, said Islamists threatened the couple after he showed them his British passport while trying to get into Kabul airport. 

‘If we were not under pressure from international society we would have shot you dead,’ the student was told, adding that he has ‘zero percent confidence’ that the Taliban will keep their promises prevent revenge attacks against those who helped British and American forces.

Once western troops have left Kabul airport and taken journalists with them, he said, the Taliban will ‘drop a curtain’ on Afghanistan by cutting off internet access – allowing them to persecute people away from prying eyes.

‘I think the Taliban will start to ask [people], ‘Why did you leave your country? Why are you planning to go to another country? You don’t like us? So now you are at our mercy and we can do whatever we want’,’ he said.

He spoke as evacuation flights out of Kabul were stepped up on to a ‘war footing’ today with time fast running out to rescue people as an August 31 deadline for all forces to be out of the country looms large. 

The US said some 16,000 people boarded mercy flights between Sunday morning and Monday afternoon while Britain managed to air-lift 2,000 in the last 24 hours. 

NATO now puts the total number of people evacuated since the Taliban took power 10 days ago at 50,000, but that is still well short of the more-than 100,000 refugees that western nations had promised to take. 

G7 leaders including Britain, France and Germany are set to pressure Joe Biden into extending the August 31 deadline today – though UK defence secretary Ben Wallace has said he does not expect the date to budge. 

Jean-Yves le Drian, the French foreign minister, said his country would be forced to stop flights on Thursday this week if America sticks with the August 31 date – while Spain warned today that Afghans who helped its troops will get left behind unless the deadline is extended.  

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Thousands of Afghans are due to fly out of Kabul airport today as huge crowds continued to swarm military checkpoints (left and right) with the August 31 deadline for mercy flights now looming large

Afghans crowd at the edge of a ditch at Kabul airport today, with some wading through the waters as they attempt to board one of the last evacuation flights out of Kabul

Afghans crowd at the edge of a ditch at Kabul airport today, with some wading through the waters as they attempt to board one of the last evacuation flights out of Kabul

Thousands of people are continuing to gather at Kabul airport despite warnings from western nations that flight will have to stop within the coming days unless a deadline to exit the country is extended

Thousands of people are continuing to gather at Kabul airport despite warnings from western nations that flight will have to stop within the coming days unless a deadline to exit the country is extended

The US said some 16,000 people were flown out of Kabul between Sunday morning and Monday afternoon, with thousands more due to leave the country today (pictured, a satellite image shows people boarding a military plane)

The US said some 16,000 people were flown out of Kabul between Sunday morning and Monday afternoon, with thousands more due to leave the country today (pictured, a satellite image shows people boarding a military plane)

Diplomats insist that the situation on the ground has improved since the weekend with more people being allowed into the airport, but satellite images showed huge crowds continuing to mass

Diplomats insist that the situation on the ground has improved since the weekend with more people being allowed into the airport, but satellite images showed huge crowds continuing to mass  

A satellite image reveals thousands of people standing in huge queues trying to get into Kabul airport with just a week left until evacuation flights out of Afghanistan are due to stop

A satellite image reveals thousands of people standing in huge queues trying to get into Kabul airport with just a week left until evacuation flights out of Afghanistan are due to stop

A line of people are led through a military checkpoint at Kabul airport which has witnessed frantic scenes over the last 10 days as people try to flee Afghanistan and Taliban rule

A line of people are led through a military checkpoint at Kabul airport which has witnessed frantic scenes over the last 10 days as people try to flee Afghanistan and Taliban rule

Cars and people gather around Kabul airport in this satellite image taken on August 23 as they flee Afghanistan after the country fell back into the hands of the Taliban

Cars and people gather around Kabul airport in this satellite image taken on August 23 as they flee Afghanistan after the country fell back into the hands of the Taliban

The US said dozens of flights carried away some 16,000 people gathered at Kabul airport between Sunday and Monday afternoon (pictured) - but there are many thousands more still looking for a route out of the country

The US said dozens of flights carried away some 16,000 people gathered at Kabul airport between Sunday and Monday afternoon (pictured) – but there are many thousands more still looking for a route out of the country

Afghan resistance ‘conquer new district near Panjshir valley’ 

Afghan resistance fighters have driven the Taliban out of another district near the Panjshir Valley, commanders have claimed today.

Rebel soldiers are thought to have captured Kotal Anjuman, a district near the resistance stronghold of Panjshir, early on Tuesday.

Leaders said that 35 Taliban fighters had been killed in the fighting, and that heavy clashes are ongoing.

Panjshir, a valley near the capital Kabul, is the last area of Afghanistan holding out against Taliban rule and is being defended by an alliance of anti-Taliban warlords and politicians calling themselves The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.

While the Islamists claim the alliance is currently negotiating a surrender, commanders have hit back – saying they would rather die fighting than surrender.

Ahmad Massoud, a commander who trained at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy and studied at King’s College, said last week that ‘no matter what happens, my mujahideen fighters and I will defend Panjshir as the last bastion of Afghan freedom.’

A spokesman for the alliance yesterday rubbished reports of a surrender, saying that Massoud ‘will defend the valley with all he has’. 

They spoke as a NATO diplomat said flights are now being conducted on a ‘war footing’ amid a race to get everyone who has been promised sanctuary out of the country before the August 31 deadline elapses. 

‘Every foreign force member is working at a war-footing pace to meet the deadline,’ said the official, who declined to be identified. 

The diplomat added that the situation at Kabul airport is calming down as Taliban guards allow more people into the airfield and some Afghans without travel paperwork began to head home – though images and footage from the ground today suggest many thousands are still crammed up against military checkpoints hoping for safe passage out.  

Democratic U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, told reporters after a briefing on Afghanistan by intelligence officials that he did not believe the evacuation could be completed in the eight remaining days.

‘I think it’s possible but I think it’s very unlikely given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated,’ Schiff said.

A Taliban official said on Monday an extension would not be granted, though he said foreign forces had not sought one. Washington said negotiations were continuing.  

Many Afghans fear reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Taliban enforced while in power from 1996 to 2001, including repression of women.

And now the UN has raised fears of a famine awaiting even those who escape the worst effects of Taliban rule, with the region in a drought and aid shipments into the country halted.

Andrew Patterson, head of the World Food Programme, said that some 7,000 metric tonnes of food have been blocked from getting into the country after Kabul airport was closed to commercial flights.

‘We need another 54,000 metric tonnes of food to get the Afghan people through to the end of December. We could start running out of food by September,’ he warned.

‘Winter is coming. We are going into the lean season and many Afghan roads will be covered in snow. We need to get the food into our warehouses where it needs to be distributed.’

Meanwhile the World Health Organisation said it only has enough supplies within the country to last another week, with 500 tons of medical aid unable to get into the country because of airport closures.

There have been isolated but numerous incidents of Taliban aggression and intolerance reported on social media, as well as reports of Taliban searches for old enemies, fanning those fears.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said her office had received credible reports of serious violations in places that have been under Taliban control, including summary executions, restrictions of women’s rights, blocking girls from attending school and recruitment of child soldiers.

‘Human rights violations undermine the legitimacy of the perpetrators, both vis-a-vis the people, and also with respect to regional and international institutions and other states,’ she warned.

Australia evacuated more than 50 female Afghan Paralympians, athletes and their dependents after securing visas for them, the Australian Broadcasting Corp reported on Tuesday.

Leaders of the United States, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Canada, and Japan who meet virtually later on Tuesday may use the possibility of unified official recognition, or renewed sanctions to push the Taliban to comply with pledges to respect women’s rights and international relations.

‘The G7 leaders will agree to coordinate on if, or when to recognise the Taliban,’ said one European diplomat. ‘And they will commit to continue to work closely together.’

Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government, that have included discussions with some leaders of old governments including a former president, Hamid Karzai.

Recognition of a Taliban-led Afghan government by other countries would have important consequences, including allowing the Taliban access to the foreign aid that previous Afghan governments have depended upon.

Biden will face pressure from other leaders to extend the Aug. 31 deadline for evacuations. France has said more time was needed, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday the G7 needed to consider whether to remain beyond that date.

US marines man a checkpoint during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, on Monday

US marines man a checkpoint during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, on Monday 

Families begin to board a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport

Families begin to board a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport

U.S. service members provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul

U.S. service members provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul

U.S. Marines provides sunscreen to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan

U.S. Marines provides sunscreen to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan

A US Marine comforts an infant while they wait for the mother during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport

A US Marine comforts an infant while they wait for the mother during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport

Afghan passengers board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai Airport

Afghan passengers board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai Airport

Overnight evacuation of US citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk Afghans from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul

Overnight evacuation of US citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk Afghans from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul

Graph showing the number of people evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, by country as of August 23, 2021 at 1700 GMT

Graph showing the number of people evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, by country as of August 23, 2021 at 1700 GMT

UN warns the Taliban are carrying out civilian executions, recruiting child soldiers and repressing women 

The UN’s human rights chief warned Tuesday that she had received credible reports of severe abuses in areas under Taliban control, including ‘summary executions’ of civilians and security forces who had laid down their arms and restrictions on women.

Michelle Bachelet urged the Human Rights Council to take ‘bold and vigorous action’ to monitor the rights situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s stunning takeover raised fears that they will return the country to the brutal rule they imposed in the 1990s.

Taliban leaders have promised to restore security and tried to project an image of moderation, but many Afghans are skeptical and are racing to the leave the country, leading to chaos at Kabul’s international airport.

Amid scattered reports, it has been difficult to determine how widespread abuses might be and whether they reflect that Taliban leaders are saying one thing and doing another, or if fighters on the ground are taking matters into their own hands.

‘At this critical moment, the people of Afghanistan look to the Human Rights Council to defend and protect their rights,’ she said. ‘I urge this council to take bold and vigorous action, commensurate with the gravity of this crisis, by establishing a dedicated mechanism to closely monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan.’

By ‘mechanism,’ Bachelet was referring to the possibility that the council might appoint a commission of inquiry, special rapporteur or fact-finding mission on the situation in Afghanistan.

Bachelet cited reports of ‘summary executions’ of civilians and former security forces who were no longer fighting, the recruitment of child soldiers, and restrictions on the rights of women to move around freely and of girls to go to school. She cited repression of peaceful protests and expressions of dissent.

Bachelet did not specify what time timeframe she was referring to or the source of her reports.

Days earlier, a Norway-based private intelligence group that provides information to the U.N. said it obtained evidence that the Taliban have rounded up Afghans on a blacklist of people they believe worked in key roles with the previous Afghan administration or with U.S.-led forces. Several Afghans are in hiding, saying they fear such reprisals.

Biden has faced widespread criticism over the withdrawal, which was initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, under a deal struck with the Taliban, and his opinion poll ratings have slipped.

For its part, the powerful U.S. military has been grappling with the collapse of U.S.-backed Afghan forces after 20 years of training. 

‘Was it worth it? Yes. Does it still hurt? Yes,’ General David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, wrote in a memo to Marines. 

The Taliban, who ended two decades of war with an astonishingly swift rout of government forces, had been publicly tolerant of the evacuation effort.

But on Monday they described next week’s cut-off date as a ‘red line’.

‘If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations — the answer is no… there would be consequences,’ spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News on Monday.

He said any foreign military presence beyond the agreed deadline would be ‘extending occupation’.

The Taliban achieved their stunning victory thanks to Biden’s decision to accelerate a deal forged by his predecessor, Donald Trump, to pull out nearly all American troops from Afghanistan.

However he was forced to redeploy thousands of troops after the fall of Kabul to oversee the airlift.

Biden and his top aides have repeatedly insisted they are aiming to stick to their August 31 deadline.

‘The goal is to get as many people out as fast as possible,’ Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.

‘The focus is on trying to do this as best we can, by the end of the month.’

Germany also said it was in talks with NATO allies and the Taliban to keep Kabul’s airport open for evacuations beyond August 31, while France said ‘additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations’.

The rush to leave Kabul has sparked harrowing scenes and left at least eight people dead.

Some of have been crushed to death and at least one, a youth football player, died after falling off a plane.

The German defence ministry said Monday an Afghan soldier was killed and three others wounded in a firefight with unknown assailants.

The Taliban are currently working on forming a government, but two sources within the movement told AFP there would be no announcement on a cabinet until the last US soldier has left Afghanistan.

The Taliban have repeatedly claimed to be different from their 1990s incarnation, and have declared an amnesty for government forces and officials.

But an intelligence assessment conducted for the United Nations said militants were going door-to-door hunting former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces.

In the capital, the former insurgents have enforced some sense of calm, with their fighters patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints.

But they are also intent on quashing the last notable Afghan military resistance to their rule, made up of ex-government forces in the Panjshir Valley, north of the capital.

Afghan refugees arrive at RAQF Brize Norton airbase in the UK early today after being evacuated from Afghanistan

Afghan refugees arrive at RAQF Brize Norton airbase in the UK early today after being evacuated from Afghanistan

A member of the RAF escorts a group of children who arrived at Brize Norton airbase early on Tuesday morning

A member of the RAF escorts a group of children who arrived at Brize Norton airbase early on Tuesday morning

An elderly woman is helped across the tarmac at RAF Brize Norton today after arriving on a flight from Afghanistan

An elderly woman is helped across the tarmac at RAF Brize Norton today after arriving on a flight from Afghanistan

Naimat Zafary - a University of Sussex graduate and UN project coordinator in Afghanistan - boards an evacuation flight bound for the UK at Kabul airport on Monday

Naimat Zafary – a University of Sussex graduate and UN project coordinator in Afghanistan – boards an evacuation flight bound for the UK at Kabul airport on Monday

People disembark at the arrival of a chartered Air Belgium airplane carrying evacuated people from Afghanistan, at the military airport in Melsbroek on Tuesday

People disembark at the arrival of a chartered Air Belgium airplane carrying evacuated people from Afghanistan, at the military airport in Melsbroek on Tuesday

People disembark at the arrival of a chartered Air Belgium airplane carrying evacuated people from Afghanistan, at the military airport in Melsbroek

People disembark at the arrival of a chartered Air Belgium airplane carrying evacuated people from Afghanistan, at the military airport in Melsbroek

Women and children disembark an evacuation flight from Afghanistan after it arrived at an airbase in Belgium on Tuesday

Women and children disembark an evacuation flight from Afghanistan after it arrived at an airbase in Belgium on Tuesday

Refugees wait at an evacuation centre at the French military air base of Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi, after fleeing Kabul

Refugees wait at an evacuation centre at the French military air base of Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi, after fleeing Kabul

Afghan refugees evacuated by the French military wait inside a shelter in Abu Dhabi for transport to Europe

Afghan refugees evacuated by the French military wait inside a shelter in Abu Dhabi for transport to Europe

Afghans arrested amid fears ‘mercy flights’ will undermine security

France and Denmark have arrested two Afghans evacuated from Kabul as safety fears around ‘mercy flights’ grow.

One man was arrested in France on Tuesday after he left a hotel where he was required to stay while his links to the Taliban were investigated, the country’s interior minister said.

There are currently five men under observation at the hotel, on suspicion of having links to the Islamist group.

Meanwhile another man was arrested after arriving in Copenhagen for ‘violating an entry ban’ , officials said without giving further details.

It comes two days after a 23-year-old man who had arrived on an evacuation flight was arrested for being a suspected member of an criminal gang.

Both men will have to be kept in Denmark after the country halted deportation flights to Afghanistan because of the security situation there.

Meanwhile the UK announced Monday that a person on a ‘no fly list’ – meaning they are a potential security threat – had travelled to Britain on an evacuation flight and walked off the plane without being stopped

Border officials had examined the case and decided that the person does not pose a security risk and that no further action will be taken. 

 

The Panjshir has long been known as an anti-Taliban bastion.

One of the leaders of the movement, named the National Resistance Front, is the son of famed anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Another is Amrullah Saleh, a vice president and head of intelligence in the fallen government.

The Taliban have said they have massed forces outside the valley, but would prefer a negotiated end to the stand off.

Not all countries were rushing to cut ties with Afghanistan or the Taliban, however, with Pakistan and China both urging world leaders to engage with the country’s new rulers today.

China said the international community should support chances for positive developments in Afghanistan rather than impose sanctions on the Taliban.

‘The international community should encourage and promote the development of the situation in Afghanistan in a positive direction, support peaceful reconstruction, improve the well-being of the people and enhance its capacity for independent development,’ Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters.

‘Imposing sanctions and pressure at every turn cannot solve the problem and will only be counterproductive,’ Wang said.

China, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan, has seized on the ugly scenes at Kabul airport to redouble its harsh criticism of U.S. actions in the country, particularly its attempt to install a Western-style democracy. 

Beijing has kept open its embassy in Kabul and sought to maintain friendly relations with the Taliban.

 Meanwhile Pakistan’s foreign minister said that an inclusive political settlement is the best way forward for peace and stability in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover. Pakistan fully supports those efforts, he added.

According to a foreign ministry statement, Shah Mahmood Qureshi made the remarks in a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, about the situation in Afghanistan.

The statement says Qureshi told Lavrov that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan was of critical importance for Pakistan and the region. It said Qureshi informed Lavrov about Pakistan’s outreach to regional countries for consultations on the challenges arising out of developments in Afghanistan.

The statement quoted Qureshi as also saying that Pakistan is facilitating the evacuation of foreigners stranded in Afghanistan. Qureshi is expected to leave for Uzbekistan later Tuesday on a visit during which he will also travel to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to discuss Afghan developments.



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