A team of Special Air Service soldiers who were surrounded by Taliban hordes in Kandahar have been rescued in a dramatic desert operation.
Around 20 elite SAS troops were left stranded in the province hundreds of miles from friendly forces when the militants took over.
As enemy fighters closed in they sent an SOS request to Special Forces bosses back in Britain calling for immediate extraction.
But they could not use Kandahar airfield – once home to 26,000 international troops at the height of the military campaign – because it had already been overrun by Taliban. So the SAS soldiers fought their way to a secret desert location where they went into hiding. The coordinates of the location were then relayed back to Special Forces headquarters in a series of coded messages.
Members of the Taliban patrol in Kandahar in Afghanistan earlier today
Thousands of Afghans desperate to flee from Kabul since the Taliban took over
Soldiers help to aid the evacuations in Kabul as desperate Afghans try and escape the country
Meanwhile, RAF chiefs planning the evacuation of British nationals and entitled Afghans from Kabul airport, had to find a transport aircraft capable of landing and taking off again in the desert.
On Wednesday night online flight trackers picked up a UK Hercules transport aircraft flying over the Gulf, until it turned off its Identification Friend or Foe sensors. This ensured flight radars could not follow its route towards the area of desert scrub which SAS troops had identified as a possible landing strip.
The aircraft, from the RAF’s Special Forces wing, made a dramatic landing in the dead of night with the crew wearing digital night-vision goggles.
A source said: ‘It was a very hush, hush mission. Kandahar had fallen to the Taliban on Friday and the guys were down there for five days after that. The enemy were rampant and killing a lot of Afghan Special Forces whom the SAS had been working with. So it was a very urgent mission.
Evacuations have been underway in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control of the country on August 13 after American troops were pulled from the country
‘Credit to the Hercules crew from 47 Squadron for landing the aircraft at night on rough terrain and getting her airborne again with the guys and their equipment aboard. It was textbook.’
The aircraft reappeared on Thursday morning on flight trackers as it approached an international military base in Dubai.
Frustratingly for SAS chiefs the C-130J which rescued their troops is due to be retired as part of the latest reorganisation of the RAF.
The Hercules is the RAF’s major tactical transport aircraft and in its current versions, has been the backbone of UK operational mobility since it was brought into service in 1999. Praised as ‘highly flexible’ by the RAF, it has the ability to airdrop a variety of both stores and paratroopers, while landing and taking off from natural surfaces, such as a desert strip.
A US Navy corpsman hands out water to children during an evacuation at the airport in Kabul
A US Airman embraces a mother after she helped to reunite their family at the airport in Kabul
A US Airman high fives a child after helping to reunite their family at the airport in Kabul
To conduct these missions, Hercules crews are highly skilled in low-level flying and trained to perform in both day and night.
The plan to rescue the stranded SAS troops was put together by the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing. The aircraft and crew came from the RAF’s 47 Squadron. It comes as Taliban fighters were on the move last night to take over a key Afghanistan province currently outside of their control.
Hundreds of troops are heading towards Panjshir Valley, an area above Kabul long known for its opposition to extremists.
In a statement, the insurgents said their soldiers were planning to take control of the region ‘after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully’. But they are expected to meet significant resistance from thousands of ex-government troops who have joined forces with local militia.
An RAF plane was filled to capacity with embassy staff, British nationals and any Afghans able to settle in the UK
Thousands of Afghans could be left behind in Kabul as ministers push to extend the deadline for the last British evacuation flight beyond Tuesday. Pictured: British citizens catching a flight earlier this week
Taliban fighters stand guard on their side at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Torkham, in Khyber district, Pakistan
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, right, and Taliban fighters stand guard on their respective sides at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Torkham, in Khyber district, Pakistan
A U.S. Navy Corpsman with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, hands out water to children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
They are led by Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, who warned that a new civil war is inevitable without a comprehensive power-sharing agreement.
Massoud claims to have some 9,000 fighters and has openly conducted training exercises showing recruits performing fitness routines. He also claims to have hundreds of military vehicles as well as five helicopters.
Pictures have emerged of a string of armoured vehicles lining up on the banks of the Panjshir River.
Defences are being bolstered at entrances to the Panjshir Valley, the south of which is guarded by a narrow gorge. Massoud said his group wants to push for a new system of government, but is prepared to fight if needed.
‘The Taliban will not last long if it continues on this path,’ he said. ‘We are ready to defend Afghanistan and we warn of a bloodshed.’
Inspired by past victories against the Soviets and the Taliban, Panjshiri soldiers have spoken in recent days about ‘a fight to the death’.
Biden refuses to rule out extending August 31 deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan: President says US has evacuated 33,000 people, describes mission as ‘hard and painful’ and admits ‘a lot could still go wrong’
President Joe Biden says the United States is ‘working hard’ and as ‘fast as we can’ to get Americans and U.S. allies out of Afghanistan, noting that 33,000 people have been evacuated from the country since July.
Biden, who set an evacuation deadline of August 31, says about 11,000 people were lifted out of Kabul in less than 36 hours, describing the evacuation as ‘hard and painful’ and admitting ‘a lot could still go wrong’.
‘Let me be clear — the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful,’ Biden said.
‘No matter when it started, when we began. It would have been true if we had started a month ago, or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see on television.’
He said defense officials ‘hope’ they will not have to extend the evacuation operation, but ‘there are going to be discussions I suspect on how far along we are in the process’.
President Joe Biden says the United States is ‘working hard’ and as ‘fast as we can’ to get Americans and U.S. allies out of Afghanistan, noting that 33,000 people have been evacuated from the country since July
‘Our first priority in Kabul is getting American citizens out of the situation as quickly and safely as possible,’ Biden said.
‘Any American that wants to get home will get home.’
Biden says for security reasons, he cannot share what plans entail for moving Americans safely to the Kabul airport.
He also said the government is ‘looking to move our Afghan allies’ out of the country as well, noting that citizens of NATO allies and Afghan allies were amongst the 11,000 individuals evacuated this past weekend.
The president stated that as evacuation efforts are underway he wanted to be clear about three things:
‘One, planes taking off from Kabul are not flying directly to the United States,’ said Biden, explaining that the planes are landing at U.S. Military bases and transit centers around the world where security screenings will take place for non-citizens.
‘Two, at these sites where they are landing we are conducting scrutiny security screening for everyone who is not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident.
‘Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check.’
He also noted that the government will welcome these individuals into the U.S.
‘Three, once screened and cleared we will welcome these Afghans we helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years,’ said Biden.
Thousands of people surrounded the Kabul airport Sunday, desperate to take the steps needed to cross the threshold to sanctuary
The Afghan interim council, formed to assist in the power transfer following President Ashraf Ghani’s escape, has met several Taliban leaders to discuss issues related to control and security during the transition process
His speech marked the latest attempt by the White House of a crisis that is rapidly turning into a humanitarian and political disaster.
A similar effort on Friday backfired when Biden claimed that he knew of no cases of Americans being stopped from reaching Kabul airport – only to be flatly contradicted by the Pentagon.
Things worsened over the weekend. The U.S. was forced to tell Americans not to try to brave the chaos around the airport unless they have been told to report there after at least seven people died, including a two-year-old, in the crush.
President Biden met with his national security in the White House Situation Room on Sunday morning as they faced fresh questions about how much they knew of intelligence assessments that said the Taliban could be in Kabul within days
At least seven people have been killed at Kabul airport by stampeding crowds, as thousands of panicked Afghans try to flee the country, the British military said on Sunday
Afghans trying to flee are surrounding Kabul airport where the Taliban are using live rounds and beatings to maintain order. Americans were told not to try to reach the airport on Saturday
And it emerged that evacuation flights were dropping flares and making steep combat landings after warnings that terrorists of the Islamic State might try to shoot down a plane.
The Biden administration has given no firm estimate of the number of Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan. Some have put the total between 10,000 and 15.000.
A White House officials said U.S. planes flew 3900 people out of Kabul in the previous 24 hours. Coalition aircraft rescued a similar number.
Biden is still facing questions about why his administration did not have a better evacuation plan after being warned that the Taliban could sweep into Kabul within days.
He was also slammed by allies and opponents for staying at Camp David last weekend as the crisis deepened.
And even allies such as the United Kingdom have voiced their frustration this weekend at the way Biden pushed ahead with such a rapid withdrawal.
A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said the hasty retreat would embolden enemies, including terrorist groups.
‘It has damaged our alliances, emboldened our adversaries and increased the risk to our own security. It has also flouted 20 years of work and sacrifice,’ said Ryan Crocker in a New York Times essay.
Against that backdrop of criticism, the White House tried to show a president hard at work.
It sent out a situation room photograph of Biden meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other members of his national security team.
Earlier, the Pentagon ordered six U.S. commercial airlines to help move evacuees from temporary sites outside of Afghanistan.
And this week Biden will join a virtual meeting of the G7 to discuss cooperation between the nations as the Taliban overruns Afghanistan, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in her statement on the upcoming meeting.
‘The leaders will discuss continuing our close coordination on Afghanistan policy and evacuating our citizens, the brave Afghans who stood with us over the last two decades, and other vulnerable Afghans,’ Psaki’s statement reads.
‘They will also discuss plans to provide humanitarian assistance and support for Afghan refugees,’ she continued.
‘The meeting will build on President Biden’s calls this week with G7 leaders Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France, and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy.’
President Joe Biden will participate in a virtual meeting with G7 leaders on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing situation in Afghanistan
The call comes after Biden received a slew of backlash last week for not talking with any world leaders in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover. Hours after reports came out attacking him for his inaction, Biden spoke with Johnson.
The G7 intergovernmental group includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
On Sunday afternoon, Biden will deliver remarks on Afghanistan – and Hurricane Henri response – at the White House.
Britain currently holds the rotating leadership of the G7 and announced earlier on Sunday that it called for the group to meet virtually this week.
The meeting comes as chaos in Afghanistan continues to unfold, and nations scramble to evacuate their citizens from Kabul.
So far, Biden has sent in 6,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help with evacuation efforts after the Taliban was able to take over the country in just over a week. This means the U.S. has deployed more troops into Afghanistan than the number of American citizens it has extracted from the country since the Taliban swept into power on August 14.
The Pentagon said Saturday they were only able to evacuate 2,500 Americans from Kabul in the past week.
Overall, the U.S. was able to evacuate 7,000 people from the pandemonium at the Kabul airport since last weekend, including 3,800 in the last day.
Up to 15,000 Americans still need to be evacuated and the administration hopes to get out 50-60,000 more Afghan allies and their families.