S'pore's A330 tanker aircraft heads to Qatar to help US airlift evacuees from Afghanistan

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at Changi Air Base to send off the crew involved in the humanitarian mission. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - A tanker aircraft with the capacity to carry more than 37 tonnes left Singapore on Thursday night (Aug 26) to help in efforts to airlift evacuees from Afghanistan.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, which departed from Changi Airbase at around 10.30pm, will be deployed to transport evacuees currently relocated in Qatar to Germany or other countries.

In all, 77 Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers, comprising pilots, aircrew, engineers and Singapore Army security personnel, will be involved in the humanitarian mission, said the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters there is an urgent need to protect evacuees and other civilians, and Singapore is directly contributing to this humanitarian cause via this mission.

"We cannot imagine the fear and terror that these displaced people are facing, arising from the situation in Afghanistan," he said.

"But we take some comfort that the SAF, through this mission, can play a part in providing for a more secure and safe future for some displaced families and individuals."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced on Monday that Singapore offered the air tanker to help the United States with evacuation efforts after Afghanistan's capital city Kabul fell to the Taleban on Aug 15.

Since then, thousands of people have been trying desperately to get into Kabul's international airport in the hope of getting on an evacuation flight. These include Afghans who had helped the US and its allies by working as translators for military operations.

As at Thursday, an estimated 1,500 Americans are still in Afghanistan, trying to get to the airport to leave before the US withdrawal deadline on Aug 31.

Dr Ng said the SAF crew already has about 200 evacuees waiting for them in Qatar.

"They're going to depart here from tonight, reach Qatar, pick up these evacuees, and then go onwards to Germany, all in 21 hours. This would have not been possible with our older aircraft."

From Germany, the plane will loop back to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, going back and forth transporting as many evacuees as it can.

Dr Ng said the air tanker, which attained full operational capability in April, is an ideal aircraft for this operation, given how it was designed for such a mission.

He noted that it can do aerial refuelling, transport people and be configured for medical purposes.

The SAF has previously deployed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2013, Dr Ng noted, adding that it has also continued to have a presence in Afghanistan in a variety of roles from 2014.

Singapore had clear reasons for joining the US and other countries in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.

"We had to disrupt the terrorist groups of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, because they were also impacting and facilitating terror plots here, particularly for Al-Qaeda."

While most, if not all, countries wish there was a "different outcome" in Afghanistan, the minister noted that there have been hard-gotten gains in disrupting terror groups in the past two decades.

This gave Singapore the chance to build up its capabilities against terrorism, including by setting up the Counter-Terrorism Information Facility, reorganising the SAF and sharing intelligence with other countries.

"We knew from the (outset) in this fight against terrorism that it was one for the long haul. It wasn't going to go away in two decades, maybe not even five. And we will use the time to prepare for the threats here," Dr Ng said.

PM Lee said in a Facebook post on Thursday that he was glad the US accepted Singapore's offer of help. "I wish them all the best as they carry out this important humanitarian mission," he added.

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