Taliban has renewed vow to let Afghans 'freely depart', says US' Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had met Qatari officials in Doha on accelerating evacuations. PHOTO: REUTERS

DOHA (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday (Sept 7) that the Taliban had reiterated a pledge to allow Afghans to freely depart Afghanistan following his meeting with Qatari officials on accelerating evacuations.

US President Joe Biden has faced mounting pressure amid reports that several hundred people, including Americans, had been prevented for a week from flying out of an airport in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban told the US that "they will let people with travel documents freely depart," Mr Blinken told a news conference in Doha, where he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met their Qatari counterparts.

"We will hold them to that," he said.

Qatar said that Kabul airport, largely closed since the conclusion of Washington's chaotic withdrawal from the country at the end of August, would reopen soon, potentially opening an important corridor for Afghans seeking to leave.

"The entire international community is looking to the Taliban to uphold that commitment," Mr Blinken said, referring to a UN Security Council resolution that urged safe passage.

Senior US Cabinet members had dinner on arrival on Monday with Qatar's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and expressed Washington's thanks to Doha for its assistance with the Afghanistan airlift.

'Extraordinary support'

Qatar was the transit point for nearly half of the more than 120,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan in the final days of the 20-year war as the Taliban took over.

Doha is the Taliban's international diplomatic base, although Mr Blinken's aides said he has no plans to meet them as Washington instead waits to judge the group's actions in power to determine the level of engagement.

The US on Monday facilitated the evacuation of four Americans by land from Afghanistan, the first departures arranged by Washington since the military pullout.

A State Department official said the Taliban were aware of the operation and did not interfere.

But non-governmental organisations say that some 600 to 1,300 people - including girls and American citizens - are stuck at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Ms Marina LeGree, the founder and executive director of a small American NGO active in Afghanistan, told AFP that the Taliban are not letting anyone through.

US officials say they no longer control the airspace in Afghanistan and that the main airport in Kabul, which the US military seized in August for evacuations, is in disrepair.

Qatari technical teams have been deployed to Kabul to assess the viability of the airport and begin to prepare it for a return to operation to allow evacuations and the arrival of badly needed humanitarian supplies.

Mr Blinken, in his meeting with the Gulf state's ruler, hailed "Qatar's extraordinary support in facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, our partners, and other Afghans at-risk," the State Department said.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Doha with his US counterpart, Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said Qatar had dispatched teams to provide technical assistance to get Kabul airport up and running, though an agreement was still being hammered out.

"We have fixed a lot of the elements which are over there, and we are about to get everything operational very soon," he said. "Right now we haven't yet reached an agreement on the way to manage, or to run the airport."

The Taliban said international flights from Afghanistan will resume shortly as Qatar and Turkey help restart operations at Kabul airport.

The group has complete control over the country with the last pocket of resistance in the north now defeated.

But Turkey has said it would not be possible to restart flights unless the Taliban agrees to allow foreign security firms in the airport terminal.

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