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The Latest: the US considers having airlines help with refugees

2021 Aug 22, 8:32, Washington

The Biden administration is considering calling on US commercial airlines to provide planes and crews to assist in transporting Afghan refugees once they are evacuated from their country by military aircraft.

The US Transportation Command says in a statement Saturday that the Pentagon has not approved or ordered any activation of commercial airlines as allowed under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, which adds to military aircraft capability during a crisis related to national defense.

However, the Transportation Command said it had issued a warning order to US carriers Friday night on the possible activation of the program. The order was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

If called upon under the voluntary program, commercial airlines would transport evacuees from way stations outside Afghanistan to another country or from Virginia’s Dulles International Airport to US military bases.


MOSCOW — The Russian ambassador in Kabul says the Taliban have asked his embassy to convey their offer of a deal to a remaining pro-government holdout in northern Afghanistan.

Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov said on Saturday that a senior member of the Taliban’s political leadership has asked Russia to tell fighters in the Panjshir Valley that the Taliban hope to reach a political agreement to settle the situation there.

The diplomat says the Taliban claim they don’t want bloodshed in the region.

The Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias that were allied with the U.S. during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, is the only area that hasn’t fallen to the Taliban.

Afghan government figures who have sought refuge there as Kabul and the rest of the country fell to the Taliban include Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he’s now the country’s rightful president after President Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with the Soviet troops’ withdrawal in 1989, has made a diplomatic comeback as a mediator during the past years, reaching out to various Afghan factions, including the Taliban.


— In Kabul, a fearful wait for the US to deliver on evacuation vow

— Europe fears Afghan refugee crisis after Taliban takeover

— AP PHOTOS: Two decades of war, and daily life in Afghanistan

— Biden vows to evacuate all Americans — and Afghan helpers

— For US military leaders, Afghan news strikes a personal chord

— Western groups desperate to save Afghan workers left behind


WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden has been briefed by members of his national security team on the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

Biden and his team met on Saturday in the White House Situation Room to discuss the security situation and counterterrorism operations, including against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.

Evacuations and efforts to finalize agreements with third-party countries willing to serve as transit hubs for evacuees were also discussed.

Vice President Kamala Harris joined the meeting by secure video teleconference during her travels to Singapore. They were joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, among others.

The White House said Biden canceled plans to travel Saturday to his Wilmington, Delaware, home.

The IS affiliate – which has long declared a desire to attack America and US interests abroad — has been active in Afghanistan for several years, carrying out horrific attacks, mostly on the Shiite minority. The group has been repeatedly targeted by US airstrikes in recent years, as well as Taliban attacks. But officials say fragments of the group are still active in Afghanistan, and the US is concerned about it reconstituting in a larger way as the country comes under divisive Taliban rule.


MILAN -- Italy on Saturday flew 211 Afghans out of Kabul, bringing to some 2,100 the number of Afghan workers at Italian missions and their families who have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Of those, 1,100 have been brought to Italy. Italy launched Operation Aquila Omnia in June and has deployed 1,500 servicemen and women to operate an airbridge from Kabul to Kuwait, aboard four C130J aircraft, and to ferry evacuees to safety in Italy aboard four KC767s.

Of those who were evacuated earlier, 80, including 33 women, arrived on Saturday at a base in South Tyrol, northern Italy, for a 10-day COVID-19 quarantine.


WASHINGTON — Pentagon says that about 3,800 civilians have been evacuated from Afghanistan over the past day, amid widespread logistical challenges and backlogs at waystations in the Middle East and Europe.

Security threats slowed the progress of Americans and others through the gates at Kabul airport, as thousands desperately trying to get on flights out of the country.

The Pentagon said that six US military C-17 aircraft and 32 charter flights departed Kabul airport over the past 24 hours. The military planes carried just 1,600 of those people.

Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, told Pentagon reporters on Saturday that of the 17,000 people evacuated since Aug. 15, just 2,500 have been Americans. US officials have estimated there are as many as 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan, but acknowledge they don’t have solid numbers.

The evacuations have been hampered by screening and logistical strains at waystations such as al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which hit maximum capacity. US officials said they have limited numbers of military and US Customs and Border Patrol screeners at the transit points, and they are struggling to work through glitches in the vetting systems.

Taylor said that the Kabul airport remains open and that Americans continue to be processed if they get to the gates.

He and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to discuss security problems in any detail but said the threat picture changes by the hour.

“We know that we’re fighting against both time and space,” Kirby said. “That’s the race we’re in right now.”


WASHINGTON — A senior US official said Saturday that potential threats by the Islamic State group against Americans in Afghanistan are forcing the US military to find new ways for evacuees to reach the Kabul airport.

The official said that small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will be given specific instructions on what to do, including movement to transit points where they can be gathered up by the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

The changes come as the US Embassy issued a new security warning Saturday telling citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without individual instruction from a US government representative.

Officials declined to provide more specifics about the IS threat but described it as significant, and said there have been no confirmed IS attacks or incidents as yet.

—Lolita C. Baldor in Washington;


BUCHAREST, Romania — A military aircraft carrying 15 Romanian citizens and four Bulgarians who were initially evacuated from Kabul to Islamabad landed safely Saturday afternoon at an airbase at Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport.

The C-130 Hercules aircraft touched down at Base 90 around 1 p.m. The evacuees were greeted by Romania’s foreign minister Bogdan Aurescu and defense minister Nicolae Ciuca.

“I want to emphasize that you, the Romanian citizens, are at the center of our concerns and action,” Aurescu said. “Even if it were a single Romanian citizen, we would have done the same.”

Aurescu called Afghanistan a place of “extreme human despair and suffering,” and said that authorities will continue to address “waves of vulnerable groups, such as Afghan journalists whom we tried to evacuate yesterday.”

On Friday, Romania said that the “extremely difficult” security situation around Kabul airport meant that none of the Afghan citizens it had “validated and contacted” for evacuation to Romania could reach the Afghan capital’s airport.

Romania has conducted three evacuation flights this week from Kabul airport, in total evacuating 23 people, including 16 Romanians. All but one of the evacuees, a US citizen, were citizens of European Union countries. In recent days, another 30 Romanians have been evacuated on aircraft of partner states, officials said.

President Klaus Iohannis in a statement Saturday thanked the authorities involved in the “successful coordination” of the evacuations, which he said, “took place in extremely difficult security conditions.”


LONDON — A former Royal Marine turned charity director in Afghanistan has slammed British government claims that the situation in the war-torn country is stabilizing, warning that he and his staff would be risking their lives if they tried to get to the airport in Kabul.

Paul Farthing, better known as “Pen,” said he has been told by British authorities that he has a seat on a flight back to the UK, but not for the 25 staff from his animal welfare charity Nowzad and their families.

Farthing told BBC radio that he is “disgusted” at the situation, and warned that the humanitarian crisis is now “getting out of control.”

“We can’t leave the country because we can’t get into the airport without putting our lives at risk,” he said. “You’ve all seen the scenes — it is no different today to any other time, it is just getting worse.”

He said he is “past angry” and “just completely numb at the incompetence of this operation.”

As of Wednesday, Britain had managed to get out over 2,000 Afghans from the country, way more than the 300 or so UK nationals. On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said around 1,000 people a day were being evacuated amid a “stabilization” at the airport, a lot of the Afghan citizens “to whom we owe debts of gratitude and honor.”


MADRID — The president of the European Commission has urged the international community to open arms for Afghan refugees.

Ursula von der Leyen made the remarks on Saturday when she and EU Council President Charles Michel visited a reception center for evacuees established by Spain’s government near Madrid.

“This resettlement of vulnerable people is of utmost importance. It is our moral duty,” Von der Leyen said. Offering “legal and safe routes globally, organized by us, the international community, for those who need protection” must be a priority of next week’s G7 meeting on the Afghanistan crisis, she added.

The EU’s top officials toured the facility that Spain has set up at the Torrejón military airbase near Madrid along with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who said it has the capacity to hold 800 people.

Two planes sent by Spain’s government have already arrived at the airbase. A first plane brought back five Spaniards and 48 Afghans who had worked for Spain and their families. A second flight arrived late on Friday night with 110 more Afghans. The third flight with another 110 passengers has left Kabul for Dubai, which Spain is using as a stop-off point before the evacuees are flown on to Madrid.

The airbase is also receiving flights from the European Union External Action service with other evacuees from Afghanistan airlifted out of Kabul by other EU countries.

EU officials and those of member states like Spain, however, recognize that the main hurdle to getting people out of Afghanistan is helping them reach and gain access to the airport. Spain says that its flights have had empty seats.

Von der Leyen said EU delegation members are constantly at the airport to try and help. “It is a very difficult situation, it is changing by the minutes, but there is intense work being done to make the best of a very difficult situation.”

The evacuees that reach Spain’s airbase are expected to spend up to three days there before moving to welcome centers in other parts of Spain or continuing their journeys to other European countries.

Sánchez said that the response from other EU members has been positive and that part of those who have arrived have already left for other countries in the bloc.


ISTANBUL — A Turkish Airlines flight carrying 160 evacuees from Kabul landed in Istanbul Saturday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

The Turkish citizens and “other nationals” arrived after first taking a Turkish military flight from Kabul to the Pakistani capital Islamabad, the news agency said. There was no further detail on the passengers’ identities but the report said 14 babies were among the passengers. Non-Turkish citizens are being quarantined in hotels under pandemic regulations.

Earlier, the news agency reported that 204 Turkish citizens had been brought from Kabul to Islamabad on two separate flights on Friday evening. It was unclear whether they had traveled on to Turkey. On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 552 Turkish citizens had been flown out of Afghanistan.


LONDON — Many people in west London with family members trying to get out of Afghanistan are seeking advice and information from a local organization set up to support Afghan and Central Asian refugees 20 years ago, the same year a US-led international force drove the Taliban from power after the 9/11 attacks.

Shah Hamdam, 52, said he would do anything to get his sister, a television journalist, out of Kabul, now that the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan.

“She is begging,” Hamdam said. “She says, ‘Find a solution, find a way for me to get out of this situation at the moment.’ I try, I try, I knock on every door to find a way to bring her over if possible.”

Dr. Nooralhaq Nasimi, founder and director of the Afghanistan & Central Asian Association, left Afghanistan with his young family when the Taliban were in charge in 1999. He said his organization has received hundreds of emotional telephone calls in recent days from people in Afghanistan, including vacationing British Afghans caught up in the sudden and chaotic turn of events.

“Those people will face a serious humiliation, persecution, and torture by the Taliban just because they were working with Western organizations,” Nasimi said.


BERLIN — Two small German military helicopters that were sent to Kabul in a move coordinated with the United States had been assembled and were ready for action on Saturday, German officials said.

The idea is for them to be used in Kabul if individual evacuees need to be picked up by helicopter and brought to the airport. But Germany’s top military commander, Gen Eberhard Zorn, said “there is no concrete plan yet for their deployment.”

Zorn said the situation remains difficult at the gates of the airport in the Afghan capital. The number of people German planes have taken out has varied.

A German flight arrived in Tashkent on Friday night with 172 evacuees on board, but two subsequent flights — also with an Airbus A400M — carried out only seven and eight people.

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said Germany so far has evacuated nearly 2,000 people. “The situation is difficult, but with our capabilities and everything that comes up on the ground, we will keep on taking out as many as possible,” she said.


PARIS — France says it has evacuated over 570 people, including at least 407 Afghan citizens, from Kabul onboard its military aircraft since Monday.

In a statement, the Defense Ministry added that a fourth evacuation plane landed Friday evening in Paris, carrying 4 French citizens and 99 Afghans, mostly people who worked with the French government or French groups in Afghanistan.

The ministry said that state services and the French embassy, which has been moved to Kabul airport, remain “fully mobilized to ensure new flights as soon as possible.”

French President Emmanuel Macron promised Monday that France would not abandon Afghans who worked for the country and would also seek to protect journalists, artists, activists, and others under threat after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan.


WASHINGTON — The US Air Force says the cargo plane packed with Afghan refugees whose photo was widely shared online actually carried even more people than originally thought — 823 — and marked a new passenger record for the aircraft.

The brief statement by the Air Mobility Command on Friday said the C-17 that departed the capital, Kabul, last Sunday had an initial count of 640 passengers, but that figure inadvertently left out 183 children sitting on people’s laps.

The statement said the correct count of 823 passengers is a record for the C-17. It took off as the Taliban swept into the city, prompting thousands of Afghans and foreigners to rush to the airport seeking a flight out — with some reaching the tarmac.


THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Dutch defense ministry says that the first group of Afghans evacuated from Kabul on Dutch military transport planes has arrived at a barracks in the northern Netherlands that has been transformed into a temporary accommodation center.

The ministry said Friday that a group of 28 Afghans has been taken to the center in Zoutcamp, a small village come 180 kilometers (120 miles) north of Amsterdam.

Dutch authorities say they have so far managed five flights out of Kabul with nearly 300 passengers. It is not clear how many of them were Afghans.

The Dutch government is seeking to evacuate Afghan nationals and their families who worked for the country’s military during its deployment and for the embassy as well as staff at aid projects.


MILAN — Italy says its military has evacuated nearly 1,000 Afghan citizens out of Kabul over the last five days.

The Defense Ministry said that two flights carrying 207 Afghans arrived Saturday in Rome from Kuwait, which Italy is using as a staging ground for the Kabul evacuations.

Italy has deployed more than 1,500 servicemen and women to operate an airbridge from Kabul to Kuwait aboard four C130J aircraft, and to ferry evacuees to safety in Italy aboard four KC767s.

Italy began what it has dubbed Operation Aquila Omnia in June, bringing to safety 1,532 Afghan citizens to date. Eighty, including 33 women, arrived on Saturday at a base in South Tyrol, northern Italy, for a 10-day COVID quarantine.

In a video distributed by the ministry, an Afghan man who was brought to the base thanked “the Italian armed forces, who didn’t leave us alone in Afghanistan. With all the difficulty, they brought us away.” Speaking with his back to the camera, he said the journey took two days. “We are tired. We are happy. We are now in a safe country,” he said, expressing also hope that one day “if Afghanistan becomes safe, we can return to our country.”


BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania’s foreign ministry says that a military aircraft have evacuated 14 Romanian citizens and four Bulgarians from Kabul airport to Islamabad.

It said in a statement Friday evening that another Romanian citizen, a United Nations employee, could not reach Kabul airport because of security issues, adding that it will look to partner states to identify possible evacuation options.

Authorities said the evacuees were assisted on arrival by Romanian Embassy staff in Pakistan. It was Romania’s third evacuation flight this week using a C-130 Hercules military aircraft.

The ministry also said that it has “validated and contacted” a number of Afghan citizens who collaborated with its troops during their mission in Afghanistan who have expressed a wish to be evacuated to Romania.

But the “extremely difficult” security situation around Kabul airport meant that none of the Afghan citizens could reach the airport. “In their case,” the ministry said. “(We) will continue to act to identify evacuation options.


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The island kingdom of Bahrain has said it is “allowing flights to make use of Bahrain’s transit facilities” amid the evacuations of Afghanistan.

The kingdom made the announcement in a statement released early Saturday.

Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf off Saudi Arabia, is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

The announcement comes as the US faced issues Friday with its facilities at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar filling up with those fleeing the Taliban takeover of the country.

The kingdom also said it is hoping that “all parties will commit to stabilizing the internal situation and to protecting the lives of civilians and the rule of law.”


KABUL, Afghanistan — Senior US military officials say that the processing of passengers inside the Kabul airport has begun, but that there is a considerable backlog of people waiting to fly to Qatar.

Gates to the Hamid Karzai International Airport were closed overnight due to overcrowding in the area, and processing began Saturday morning. It would be roughly 5 to 9 hours before the backlog clears and more people could be allowed in through the gates.

The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss ongoing military operations.


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken says 13 countries have thus far agreed to at least temporarily host at-risk Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan. Another 12 have agreed to serve as transit points for evacuees, including Americans and others, leaving Afghanistan.

Blinken said in a statement that potential Afghan refugees not already cleared for resettlement in the United States will be housed at facilities in Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Uganda.

Transit countries include Bahrain, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan, he said.

“We deeply appreciate the support they have offered, and are proud to partner with them in our shared support of the Afghan people,” Blinken said. “We are encouraged by other countries that are also considering providing support. We have no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas and to fulfill our commitments to citizens of partner nations and at-risk Afghans.”


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