Under-fire British foreign minister defends missed Afghan call

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is pictured leaving 10 Downing Street on Aug 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Friday (Aug 20) defied demands to quit after failing to make a telephone call to help translators fleeing Afghanistan, saying the Taleban's rapid advance made contact impossible.

Raab was on holiday in Crete when his office was advised to call his Afghan counterpart to urge him to help evacuate local translators who had helped British forces.

But the call was never made, leading to demands that Raab quit and accusations that Britain had abandoned the translators.

"While the Foreign Secretary lay on a sun lounger, the Taliban advanced," said the main opposition Labour party's foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Nandy.

"The Foreign Secretary should be ashamed and the Prime Minister has serious questions to answer over why he remains in the job."

But Raab defended his actions, hitting out at media reports as "inaccurate".

The call was delegated to a junior minister as he was "prioritising security and capacity" at Kabul airport, on the advice of those overseeing the crisis response.

"The Afghan Foreign Minister (Haneef Atmar) agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation," he said in a statement issued by his office.

"The whole of government has been working tirelessly over the last week to help as many people evacuate from Afghanistan as possible," he added.

Raab's office was advised last Friday to call Atmar as the Taleban swept towards Kabul.

The government said it was prioritising security at the airport, which the minister said "was the right" decision.

"As a result, 204 British nationals and their families, Afghan staff and other countries citizens were evacuated on the morning of Monday, Aug 16," he said, adding that 1,635 had since been flown out.

'Absolutely' confident

The government has been under fire for its policy towards translators who held British officials and military, with accusations it was not doing enough to help.

On Aug 4, it said it aimed to relocate the families of 500 staff in Afghanistan who supported British troops "as soon as possible" - some 2,500 individuals in total.

A new separate scheme was unveiled on Tuesday with the goal of relocating an initial 5,000 vulnerable Afghans in the first year, with plans to go up to 20,000 in the long term.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who on Friday chaired a fourth meeting of the government's emergencies and contingencies committee in a week, said he "absolutely" has full confidence in Raab.

Raab, a pro-Brexit ally, deputised for Johnson for three weeks when the prime minister was in intensive care with Covid-19 last April.

Earlier, Johnson met a few of the more than 2,200 Afghans already in Britain through the original relocation programme.

In a video message posted on Twitter, he insisted British officials were "starting to see some good progress" at Kabul airport, despite chaotic scenes on the ground.

Britain was evacuating "as many more as we can, as rapidly as we can", he added.

"What the UK now needs to do is work with all our friends and partners in the international community so that we use the maximum leverage on the new regime in Kabul," Johnson added.

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