OTTAWA – Forty-three Canadians were among 200 foreigners aboard a civilian flight out of Afghanistan on Thursday, the first large-scale sortie since US forces completed their frenzied withdrawal more than a week ago.
Foreign Minister Marc Garneau confirmed the departure and the number in a statement and thanked Qatar for facilitating the special flight from Kabul to Doha, which also included American, German and Hungarian citizens.
“We can confirm that today 43 Canadian citizens were on board a special flight organized by the Qatari government,” Garneau said in a statement. “Canada has been working closely with Qatar to ensure safe passage for Canadian citizens still in Afghanistan and looking to leave, and we thank them for their continued support.”
The 43 were among the 1,250 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and family members stranded in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of all US military forces from the country on August 30.
“We work tirelessly, including through close cooperation with our international partners, to bring home the remaining Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families, and vulnerable Afghans who have supported Canada’s work in Afghanistan,” Garneau said.
A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the new Taliban foreign minister and deputy prime minister helped facilitate the exit.
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A senior Canadian official had previously confirmed that those on board did not include former interpreters and other Afghans who previously worked with Canada in the country and are now desperate to escape for fear of retaliation from the Taliban.
The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said the best escape route for those people remains the overland route to Pakistan.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has deployed more personnel to reinforce the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, the official added, and more people are being dispatched to help there and on the border with Afghanistan.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is running for re-election as a University-Rosedale Liberal candidate, said during a virtual press conference that Canadian officials “are working to get more people to go home via a variety of different routes. . “
Retired Major General Denis Thompson, one of several Canadian veterans working to get Afghans out of the country who previously worked with the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan, said the Qatar Airways flight was encouraging.
Forty-three Canadians were among 200 foreigners aboard a civilian flight out of Afghanistan on Thursday, the first such large-scale sortie since US forces completed their frenzied withdrawal more than a week ago. #Afghanistan
Thousands of former performers, cultural advisers, drivers, cleaners and other locally engaged personnel with ties to Canada remain trapped in Afghanistan, and Thompson said reopening the Kabul airport is the best way to get them out of the country.
Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said another 200 passengers will leave Afghanistan on Friday. A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said foreigners, including Americans, will be leaving in the next few days.
The Taliban have repeatedly said that foreigners and Afghans with the proper travel documents could leave. But his assurances have been met with skepticism, even with the departure of the Qatar flight.
As Taliban authorities patrolled the runway on Thursday, passengers presented their documents for inspection and dogs sniffed the luggage on the ground. Some veteran airport employees had returned to work after fleeing during the heartbreaking chaos of the US-led airlift.
Irfan Popalzai, 12, boarded the flight with his mother and five brothers and sisters. He said his family lives in Maryland.
“I’m Afghan, but you know I’m from the United States and I’m very excited” to go, he said.
Before the flight took off, Qatari officials gathered on the tarmac to announce that the airport was ready for the resumption of international commercial flights after days of repairs.
Extensive damage in the frenzied final days of the US airlift that evacuated more than 100,000 people had raised questions about how soon regular commercial service could resume. Experts from Qatar and Turkey have rushed to reestablish operations.
“I can clearly say that this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan, as the Kabul airport is already operational,” said al-Qahtani, the Qatari envoy.
“Call it what you want, charter or commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes,” he added. “Hopefully life is getting back to normal in Afghanistan.”
The flight was the first to take off from Kabul airport since US forces left the country in late August. The scenes of chaos that accompanied them, including Afghans rushing to their deaths from the sides of a military plane on takeoff and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US servicemen, defined the end of the two-decade war. in United States.
Al-Qahtani said the airport’s radar is now active and covers about 70 miles after US forces rendered it inoperative. Authorities coordinated with Pakistan as they tried to establish control over the airspace, he added. Flights are restricted to daylight hours.
The airport is no longer the Hamid Karzai International Airport, but simply the Kabul International Airport, with the name of the former president of the country removed. Several white Taliban flags flew from the terminal, which bore the coat of arms “The Islamic Emirate seeks peaceful and positive relations with the world.”
Hundreds of other Afghans who say they are at risk for helping Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, awaiting permission to board chartered evacuation flights. Many of them are believed not to have the necessary travel documents.
Despite skepticism around the world, the Taliban have promised that Afghans who worked for the Americans will not be targeted.
This Canadian Press report was first published on September 9, 2021.
– With files from The Associated Press