First passenger flight since US pullout lands in Qatar

DOHA • The first passenger flight to leave Afghanistan since the frenzied United States military evacuation ended late last month arrived in Doha, the Qatari capital, on Thursday with more than 100 foreigners including Americans aboard, and Biden administration officials said they expected more such flights in coming days.

"We can confirm that flight has safely landed in Qatar," Ms Emily Horne, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement on Thursday afternoon that expressed gratitude to the Qatari government for sending the plane and facilitating the flight.

The statement gave a measured assessment of coordination with the Taliban militants, who have resumed control of the country after a 20-year war with the US and its allies. The Taliban has been "cooperative in facilitating the departure of American citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights from HKIA", the statement said, referring to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

"They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step."

At a news conference earlier in the day at the airport, Qatari special envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said the passengers would head to their final destinations after reaching Qatar.

He called the resumption of flights from Kabul "a historic day in the history of Afghanistan", and said another passenger flight was expected to depart yesterday.

The Taliban has blamed the Americans for delays in letting people fly out, and said that as US forces left last week, they rendered the radar and other equipment at the Kabul airport inoperable.

Engineers from Qatar, alongside workers from Turkey, have been working to repair the damage and to come up with a security protocol to enable international passenger flights to resume.

On Thursday, Mr Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's deputy information and culture minister, thanked Qatar for its assistance in getting the airport running and flying in 45 tonnes of aid that morning.

He said the airport's reopening was an "opportunity to call on all Muslim and international countries to lend a helping hand to the Afghan people and start delivering humanitarian aid".

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said more than 30 American citizens and green card holders were invited to get on the flight, but some did not do so, torn over being separated from their extended families or experiencing medical issues that prevented immediate travel.

He said officials were cross referencing travel documents and flight manifests before releasing a precise total.

Those who checked in for the flight included scores of Canadians, and a handful of American and British citizens.

The process was coloured by a sense of relief, a stark contrast to the desperation and chaos at the airport just over a week ago.

A 42-year-old passenger from Toronto, who identified himself only by his first name, Safi, was among those passing through security to board the waiting Boeing 777. He said he had tried to leave during the evacuation but had given up as chaos enveloped the streets outside the airport.

There has been no indication that the Taliban will allow tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for emergency US visas to leave. Taliban and foreign officials have said Afghans with dual citizenship would be allowed to leave, but it was unclear whether any were on the first flight.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2021, with the headline 'First passenger flight since US pullout lands in Qatar'. Subscribe