Kabul's first flight hailed as positive step amid disturbing signs

KABUL, Afghanistan – Ten days after the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan ended, an isolated airliner took off from Kabul airport on T...


KABUL, Afghanistan – Ten days after the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan ended, an isolated airliner took off from Kabul airport on Thursday, the first international passenger flight since US forces ended their 20 years presence in the country.

The departure of the Qatar Airways chartered Boeing 777, with dozens of Americans, Canadians and Britons on board, has been hailed by some as a sign that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may be on the verge of reconnection. the world, even as reports of the group stepped up its crackdown on dissent.

“Kabul airport is now operational,” Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani, a special envoy for the Qatari foreign ministry, said at a press conference on the tarmac.

In recent days, Qatari and Turkish personnel have worked with the Taliban to repair the damage and make the airport functional again. But just over a week ago, the facility was a scene of frantic desperation as people scrambled to find seats on the last of the commercial and military planes to come out.

When the last evacuation flight left Kabul just before midnight on August 30, it left behind a ghost town of an airport, strewn with damaged equipment and abandoned property of the evacuees.

An unknown number of foreigners and Afghans desperately wanted to leave, but with no way out.

Mr. Al-Qahtani strove Thursday to emphasize the difference between yesterday and today. This, he said, was not an evacuation. “We are talking about vested benefits,” he said. “We want people to feel like this is normal.”

But despite all the diplomat’s speeches about a new era, by the end of the day only one plane full of passengers had left the country, and “normal” seemed far away for a country barely taken over by militants feared by many Afghans and which are shunned by much of the world.

More flights have been promised in the coming days. But countless people remained in limbo, including at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where dozens of Americans and hundreds of Afghans waited for the Taliban to wait for them. leave on charter flights.

During Thursday’s joint press conference at the airport, the Taliban and Qatari officials hailed the flight as the moment when Afghanistan reconnected with the international community. While this may have been overstated – many world leaders clearly remain deeply suspicious of the country’s new rulers – U.S. officials on Thursday praised the militants whom U.S. forces have fought against for two decades.

“The Taliban have cooperated to facilitate the departure of US citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights from HKIA,” said Emily Horne, spokesperson for the National Security Council, in a statement, referring to the international airport. Hamid Karzai from Kabul. “They have been flexible, and they have been pragmatic and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step. “

The State Department confirmed that Americans were on board the plane, which then landed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, but did not specify their number. A spokesperson, Ned Price, said more than 30 Americans were invited on the flight, but some did not go.

At Kabul airport on Thursday, as passengers checked in for the flight to Qatar, the mood of relief contrasted sharply with the scene just over a week ago.

Safi, 42, from Toronto, was among those who went through security to board the plane. He said he tried to leave during the evacuation, but gave up as chaos enveloped the streets outside the airport. End of August, a suicide bombing at the airport gates killed dozens of Afghans and 13 US servicemen.

But Thursday was a scene of relative calm.

“Things are going well,” said Safi, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “It seems that the authorities are keeping their promises.

The chartered plane had arrived in Kabul from Doha, carrying 50 tons of humanitarian aid, including food, officials said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman who joined the Qatari envoy at the press conference, said resuming international flights would be essential to ensure much-needed aid continues to flow into the country.

China, making cautious overtures to its unstable neighbor, has pledged $ 30 million in food and other aid to the new government. But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also urged the Taliban to work to contain terrorist groups.

The United Nations warned on Thursday that freezing billions of dollars in Afghan assets to keep them out of the hands of the Taliban would inevitably have devastating economic consequences.

Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, told the UN Security Council that the international community must find a way to make these funds available to the country, with guarantees to prevent the ‘abuse by the Taliban, “to avoid a total collapse of the economy and social order.

On Thursday, the new interim Afghan prime minister, Mullah Muhammad Hassan, urged former officials who fled when the Taliban seized power to return home. The group, he told Al Jazeera in an interview, “will ensure their safety and security.”

But these and other assurances offered by the Taliban have been received with broad skepticism. Many remember the brutal reign of the activists 20 years ago. And many are alarmed by what they have already seen since the group returned.

“The Taliban have repeatedly insisted that they will respect human rights, but these claims are totally at odds with what we are currently seeing and hearing in cities across the country,” Amnesty International told Thursday. A declaration. “The Afghans who have taken to the streets, naturally fearing for the future, face intimidation, harassment and violence – especially against women. ”

US officials said Americans on the flight from Kabul on Thursday were considered “most interested” in going out, but said other Americans in Afghanistan would have other opportunities to leave.

Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, was cautiously optimistic Thursday morning about the possibility for Americans elsewhere in Afghanistan to depart from Kabul airport, although he noted that the trip could be “treacherous and difficult.” “But he said it was still not clear how many of those who wanted to leave remained in Afghanistan, or how they would get to the capital.

“I don’t want to sound like I have much faith in the Taliban,” King said, adding: “All I can say is that it seems so far the Taliban have honored their pledge to allow the Americans to leave.

While Thursday’s flight appeared to be a step toward resolving a diplomatic standoff that left dozens of Americans and other international workers stranded in Afghanistan, it was unclear whether the Taliban would allow the tens of thousands. of Afghans who once helped the US government and now qualify for US emergency visas to leave.

The Taliban and foreign officials said Afghans with dual citizenship would be allowed to leave, but it was not clear whether they were on board the first flight.

It was also unclear whether the charter flights departing from the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where dozens of Americans and hundreds of Afghans were waiting to leave the country, would be allowed to fly.

In recent days, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said the Taliban are to blame for the flights on the ground and claim that some passengers listed on the manifest do not have the proper documents.

Mr. Price, the State Department spokesman, said the United States had “pulled all the levers” to persuade the Taliban to allow flights from Mazar-i-Sharif carrying not only US citizens and legal residents, but also Afghans considered to be in danger. risk.

“We continue to assert that these people should be allowed to leave,” he said. “At the first possible opportunity. “

Paul Mozur and Marc Santora contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Kabul's first flight hailed as positive step amid disturbing signs
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