Kabul airport reopens to receive aid, domestic flights restart

Young Afghan evacuees play soccer in a residential compound in Doha, Qatar, on Aug 28, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

DUBAI (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Ariana Afghan Airlines resumed some flights in Afghanistan between Kabul and three major provincial cities on Saturday (Sept 4), the carrier said, after a technical team from Qatar reopened the capital's airport for aid and domestic services.

Flights between Kabul and the western city of Herat, Mazar-i Sharif in northern Afghanistan and Kandahar in the south have started, the airline said in a statement on its Facebook page.

"Ariana Afghan Airlines is proud to resume its domestic flights," it said.

Earlier, Qatar's ambassador to Afghanistan said a technical team was able to reopen Kabul airport to receive aid, according to Qatar's Al Jazeera news channel.

The airport's runway has been repaired in cooperation with authorities in Afghanistan, the ambassador said, according to Al Jazeera, in a further small step towards a return to relative normality after the turmoil of the past three weeks.

Reopening the airport, a vital lifeline with both the outside world and across Afghanistan's mountainous territory has been a high priority for the Taliban as they seek to restore order after their lightning seizure of Kabul on Aug 15.

Kabul airport had been closed since the end of the massive US-led airlift of its citizens, other Western nationals and Afghans who helped Western countries. The end of that evacuation of tens of thousands of people marked the withdrawal of the last US forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

Thousands of people wanting to leave Afghanistan, fearful of life under Taliban rule, were left behind when the evacuation operation ended at the end of August.

The Taliban, the West's adversary in the two-decade war that followed the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, has promised safe passage for those wanting to leave.

Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, speaking at a joint news conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in Doha on Thursday, said the Gulf state was talking to the Taliban and working with Turkey for potential technical support to restart operations in Kabul airport.

Meanwhile, a British diplomat said Qatar is hoping to get military flights out of Kabul to allow evacuations from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The Gulf nation would offer international partners, including Britain, a quota of seats to evacuate British nationals, Afghans who worked for Britain, and others most at risk, said the British source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

The plan, which is currently being worked on, follows a visit to Doha by Mr Raab.

He also visited housing for refugees evacuated from Afghanistan after the Taliban took Kabul last month.

During a press conference with Mr Raab then, Qatar's Mr Al-Thani said Qatar was talking with the Taliban and working with Turkey for potential technical support to restart operations at Kabul airport.

Doha has also offered help with high-level engagement with the Taliban, the same diplomat said, adding that both Britain and Qatar were minded to engage pragmatically with the changed reality in Afghanistan.

Separately, the diplomat said the British Foreign Office was putting in place a staffing "surge" as a matter of priority until the end of the month to help support the Afghanistan response.

The Taliban swept to power last month as western governments halted evacuations and left Afghanistan following the withdrawal of United States troops from the country.

Britain has airlifted around 15,000 people from Kabul but Mr Raab told a foreign affairs committee of members of Parliament this week that the number of people left behind is unknown.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday he will travel next week to Qatar and Germany for talks on the Afghanistan crisis.

Blinken told reporters he would leave on Sunday and voice "deep gratitude" to Qatar, a key hub for the massive US airlift of Afghans, as the Taliban swiftly took control of the country.

The top US diplomat said he would then head to Germany to lead a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan alongside Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

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