The Taliban held evacuees at Afghanistan’s airport for days: NPR

A Taliban soldier guards the gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Wali Sabawoon / AP Hide caption

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Wali Sabawaoon / AP

A Taliban soldier guards the gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday.

Wali Sabawaoon / AP

KABUL, Afghanistan – At least four planes chartered to evacuate hundreds of people trying to escape the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan have not been able to leave the country in days, officials said Sunday amid pressure on the United States to help those who stayed behind to escape.

An Afghan official at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif said the passengers were Afghans, many of whom had no passports or visas and were therefore unable to leave the country. He said they left the airport while the situation was resolved.

However, the top Republican on the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs said the group included Americans and they were on the planes, but the Taliban did not allow them to take off and were effectively holding them hostage. He did not say where this information came from. It was not possible to reconcile the accounts immediately.

The final days of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan were marked by a harrowing airlift at Kabul airport to evacuate tens of thousands of people – Americans and their allies – who, given the history of repression by the Taliban, feared what the future might bring would women. When the last troops withdrew on August 30th, however, many remained behind.

The US promised to continue to work with the new Taliban rulers to get those who want to get out, and the militants promised to allow anyone with the correct legal documents to leave. But Texas MP Michael McCaul told Fox News Sunday that American citizens and Afghan interpreters were being held on six planes.

“The Taliban will not let them leave the airport,” he said, adding that he was concerned, “they will always ask for more, be it cash or legitimacy as the Afghan government.” He did not provide any further details.

The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said there were four planes whose intended passengers were staying in hotels while authorities were considering leaving the country. The crux of the matter is that many did not have the correct travel documents.

Mazar-e-Sharif residents also said the passengers were no longer at the airport. At least 10 families were seen at a local hotel awaiting a decision about their fate. None of them had passports or visas, but said they worked for companies allied with the US or German military. Others were seen in restaurants.

The State Department has no reliable means of confirming information about such charter flights, including the number of American citizens, as it has no more people on the ground, according to a US official. But the ministry will hold the Taliban to its promise to let people travel freely, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not allowed to speak publicly on the issue.

The small Mazar-e-Sharif airport has only recently started handling international flights and so far only to Turkey. The aircraft in question flew to Doha, Qatar, said the Afghan official. It wasn’t clear who chartered them or why they were waiting in the northern city. The massive airlift occurred at Kabul International Airport, which initially closed following the US withdrawal, but where domestic flights have now resumed.

The last US military plane left Afghanistan as America's longest war ends

Burning images of this chaotic evacuation – including people clinging to a plane as it took off – defined the final days of America’s longest war, just weeks after Taliban fighters retook the country in a lightning offensive.

Since taking power, the Taliban have tried to differentiate themselves from their incarnation in the 1990s, when they last ruled the country and placed repressive restrictions on society. Women and girls were denied work and education, men were allowed to grow beards, and television and music were banned.

Now the world is waiting to see the face of the new government and many Afghans remain skeptical. In the weeks since she came to power, the signals have been mixed: government employees, including women, were asked to return to work, but some women were later summoned home by subordinate Taliban. Universities and schools have opened, but fear has kept both students and teachers away.

Women have demonstrated peacefully, and some even held talks with Taliban leaders about their rights. However, some were dispersed by Taliban special forces firing into the air.

One of the Taliban’s promises is that Afghans will be able to travel with passports and visas as soon as the country’s airports are operational. More than 100 countries issued a statement saying they would be careful to see if the new rulers stick to their commitment.

In the past few days, technical teams from Qatar and Turkey have arrived and are working on putting the civil airport into operation.

On Saturday, the state-owned Ariana Airlines made its first domestic flights, which continued on Sunday. The airport has no radars, so flights are limited to daylight for visual landing, official Shershah Stor said.

Several countries have also provided humanitarian aid. The Gulf state of Qatar, in which the Taliban held political office since 2013, flies daily to Kabul and provides humanitarian aid for the war-weary country. Bahrain also announced humanitarian aid deliveries.

Meanwhile, the Taliban stepped up their attack on the last remaining zone of resistance, led by fighters who opposed their rule.

The anti-Taliban fighters in Panjshir province north of the Afghan capital are led by former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who has called for humanitarian aid for thousands of people displaced by the fighting.

A senior Taliban spokesman tweeted on Sunday that Taliban troops had overrun the Rokha district, one of the largest of the eight districts in Panjshir. Several Taliban delegations tried to negotiate with the objectors there, but the talks did not succeed.

Fahim Dashti, the spokesman for the group fighting the Taliban, was killed in battle on Sunday, according to the group’s Twitter account. Dashti was the voice of the group and a prominent media personality during previous governments.

He was also the nephew of Abdullah Abdullah, a senior former government official involved in negotiations with the Taliban over the future of Afghanistan.

Saleh fled to Panjshir after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan when the Taliban marched on the capital. The lightning strike by fighters across the country took less than a week to overrun some 300,000 government forces, most of which surrendered or fled.

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