Western powers scramble to evacuate from Afghanistan

The Taleban ordered their fighters to wait on the outskirts of the capital, on the brink of total victory. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (AFP) -European nations and the EU scrambled to evacuate their citizens and local staff from Kabul on Sunday (Aug 16), as Nato said it would keep the airport open with the Taleban closing in on power.

The hardline Islamists were on the brink of total victory in Afghanistan, after the government conceded it was preparing for a "transfer of power".

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance "was helping keep Kabul airport open to facilitate and coordinate evacuations" after consulting with member countries.

The European Union was left desperately trying to find a solution for its Afghan staff facing possible reprisals, and seeking to convince the 27 member states to offer them visas.

"The matter is extremely urgent, we take it very seriously and continue to work hard, together with EU member states, on implementing rapid solutions for them and ensuring their safety," an EU spokesman said.

European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that he was in close contact with Mr Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief.

"Security of EU citizens, staff and their families is priority in short term," he added. "Equally clear that many lessons will need to be drawn."

Germany, France and the Netherlands were among countries moving diplomatic personnel from their embassy in Kabul to the airport ahead of evacuation.

"We are not going to risk our people falling into the hands of the Taleban," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Bild daily.

Mr Haas later announced that German embassy staff would start being flown out from Sunday.

A Bundeswehr aircraft will also depart Sunday night for the Afghan capital to help with the evacuation in coming days, Mr Maas added.

The army will fly passengers to an unnamed "neighbouring country", where they will then be put on civilian flights bound for Germany, the minister said.

A core team of the embassy will carry on operating from the airport where they are currently sheltering, to help in particular with the evacuations.

"We are doing everything now to enable our nationals and our former local employees to leave the country in the coming days," Mr Maas said.

But he warned the situation is "difficult to predict" and said Germany was working in close cooperation with allies.

Canada is temporarily closing its embassy in Kabul after evacuating staff ahead of Taleban fighters' arrival in the Afghan capital, said the foreign ministry in Ottawa.

Canadian personnel were already on their way back home, a statement said. The ministry added that the embassy would reopen once conditions allowed a resumption of normal activities under adequate security.

France's ambassador to Afghanistan tweeted a video of himself leaving the Green Zone in Kabul aboard a helicopter as Paris looked to set up a temporary mission at the airport.

In Paris the foreign ministry said military reinforcements were being deployed to the United Arab Emirates to help with evacuations through Abu Dhabi.

Other Nato members including Britain, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Spain have also announced they are evacuating their embassy personnel.

Paris has vowed an "exceptional effort" to welcome Afghans under threat for their human rights work. More than 600 Afghans employed in French organisations in the country have already arrived in France along with their families, the government said on Friday.

Britain is deploying around 600 troops to help evacuate its roughly 3,000 nationals from the country, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the "vast bulk" of remaining embassy staff in Kabul would return to the UK.

He was to hold fresh crisis talks on Wednesday, recalling parliament from its summer break to discuss what Britain, which lost 457 troops in the two-decade-long war, should do next.

Italy's defence ministry said a first military plane would arrive Sunday to begin "emergency evacuation" operations.

Italy, which once had one of the largest Western contingents in Afghanistan totalling some 50,000 troops over 20 years, already repatriated its last troops in June.

A total of 53 Italian soldiers were killed, and 723 were wounded.

Denmark, Finland and Norway are temporarily shut their Kabul embassies, ministers from the Nordic countries said on Friday.

Finland will offer asylum to 170 local staff and their families.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde also noted that the country's evacuees would include Afghan interpreters and other local staff.

Meanwhile the Dutch embassy in Kabul was evacuated overnight and is operating from a makeshift office near the airport, the country's foreign ministry said Sunday.

The Netherlands said Friday that it would take in Afghan interpreters and some other embassy staff.

Russia meanwhile said it did not plan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul. Foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said Russia was among a number of countries to receive assurances from the Taleban that their embassies would be safe, according to the RIA Novosti agency.

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