At least four planes chartered to evacuate several hundred people seeking to escape the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan have been unable to leave the country for days, officials have said.
Conflicting accounts emerged about why the flights were not able to take off from the airport at Mazar-e-Sharif as pressure ramps up on the United States to help those left behind.
An Afghan official at the airport in the northern city said that the would-be passengers were Afghans, many of whom did not have passports or visas, and thus were unable to leave the country. He said they had left the airport while the situation was sorted out.
The top Republican on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, said that the group included Americans and they were sitting on the planes, but the Taliban were not letting them take off, effectively “holding them hostage”. He did not say where that information came from. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the accounts.
The final days of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan were marked by a harrowing airlift at Kabul’s airport to evacuate tens of thousands of people — Americans and their allies — who feared what the future would hold, given the Taliban’s history of repression, particularly of women. When the last troops pulled out on August 30, though, many were left behind.
The US promised to continue working with the new Taliban rulers to get those who want to leave out, and the militants pledged to allow anyone with the proper legal documents to leave. But Representative Michael McCaul of Texas told “Fox News Sunday” that American citizens and Afghan interpreters were being kept on six planes.
“The Taliban will not let them leave the airport,” he said, adding that he is worried “they’re going to demand more and more, whether it be cash or legitimacy as the government of Afghanistan.” He did not offer more details.
The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said it was four planes, and their intended passengers were staying at hotels while authorities worked out whether they might be able to leave the country. The sticking point, he indicated, is that many did not have the right travel papers.
Residents of Mazar-e-Sharif also said the passengers were no longer at the airport. At least 10 families were seen at a local hotel waiting, they said, for a decision on their fates. None of them had passports or visas but said they had worked for companies allied with the US or German military. Others were seen at restaurants.
The small airport at Mazar-e-Sharif only recently began to handle international flights and so far only to Turkey. The planes in question were bound for Doha, Qatar, the Afghan official said. It was not clear who chartered them or why they were waiting in the northern city.
The massive airlift happened at Kabul’s international airport, which initially closed after the US withdrawal but where domestic flights have now resumed.
Searing images of that chaotic evacuation — including people clinging to an airplane as it took off — came to define the final days of America’s longest war, just weeks after Taliban fighters retook the country in a lightning offensive.
Since their takeover, the Taliban have sought to recast themselves as different from their 1990s incarnation, when they last ruled the country and imposed repressive restrictions across society. Women and girls were denied work and education, men were forced to grow beards, and television and music were banned.
Now, the world is waiting to see the face of the new government, and many Afghans remain sceptical. In the weeks since they took power, signals have been mixed: government employees including women have been asked to return to work, but some women were later ordered home by lower-ranking Taliban. Universities and schools have been ordered open, but fear has kept both students and teachers away.
Women have demonstrated peacefully, some even having conversations about their rights with Taliban leaders. But some have been dispersed by Taliban special forces firing in the air.
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