An international flight carrying passengers, including Americans, has flown out of Kabul airport for the first time since the US withdrew from Afghanistan ten days ago.
A US official confirmed that Americans were on board a Qatar Airways flight, which took off on Thursday after Qatar and Turkey reached an agreement with the Taliban to help provide security at Kabul airport.
A person who was aware of the talks between Qatar, Turkey and the Taliban said there were about 200 people on board. British officials confirmed that there were about a dozen British nationals on board.
“We don’t think” [these flights] will still be regular, but we’re working on that,” the person said. “We have an agreement on security to make sure it’s safe, but we’re still trying to smooth things over.”
The National Security Council later on Thursday confirmed the flight had landed safely in Qatar, saying the US government had facilitated the departure of US citizens and lawful permanent residents on the chartered flight from Hamid Karzai International Airport. Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said the U.S. had invited 39 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to the flight, and 11 took up the offer.
“This is a positive first step,” said Emily Horne, an NSC spokesperson. The Taliban “have dealt with them in a businesslike and professional manner in this effort,” she added.
The Biden administration has promised that the remaining US citizens will be able to leave the country without setting a deadline. Horne said the US would not share further details about its evacuation efforts for Americans and eligible Afghans “because there is an ongoing threat to operations of this nature”.
Mutlaq al-Qahtani, Qatar’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told reporters that Kabul airport was about 90 percent ready for operations, but added that the reopening was “gradually planned”.
“This is a historic day in Afghanistan’s history as Kabul airport is fully operational,” Qahtani told Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded television network. “We have faced enormous challenges . . . but we can now say that the airport is suitable for navigation.”
The person who was aware of the talks between Qatar, Turkey and the Taliban said Doha hoped to conduct a second flight on Friday.
The reopening of the airport is considered an urgent priority for Western and regional powers over fears that thousands of Afghans vulnerable to Taliban reprisals would be stranded.
US officials have argued that the Taliban must abide by their commitments to allow Americans to leave the country if they are to have any hope of international support.
The resumption of international flights is also considered critical to flying much-needed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power last month and the government collapsed.
Qatar, which houses a Taliban political office in Doha and has become the main mediator for cooperation between the Islamist movement and Western powers, sent a technical team last week to help reopen the airport.
The main concern was how to ensure that security in and around the airport is managed securely to prevent extremists from attacking the transport hub or gaining access to flights. During the final days of the US withdrawal, jihadist group Isis-K claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 170 people, including 13 US troops.
The flights on Thursday took place as Taliban fighters on high alert patrolled Kabul and other cities after the new government banned unauthorized protests. The Islamist movement, which announced an interim government on Tuesday, imposed the ban late Wednesday after days of demonstrations by Afghan women and opposition supporters.
The interior ministry said protesters need government permission and share their plans and even slogans with authorities in advance. “Violators will face serious legal action,” he said.
It was one of the first acts by the new Taliban government in strengthening its control over the country after the US withdrawal last month. The move stunned critics who said the regime was erasing basic rights and reviving the repressive practice. There had been hopes that the Islamists would turn out to be more moderate than when they first ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The Taliban on Tuesday unveiled an interim cabinet dominated by hardliners and ideologues, including members facing UN sanctions or on the FBI’s most wanted list, ignoring Western calls for a diverse government with women and non-Taliban leaders.
Afghanistan has seen a wave of protests across the country this week, many led by women demanding rights and representation in government from all men. A number of female protesters were beaten by Taliban fighters, the BBC said.
The Taliban had previously said that women’s rights would be respected under Islamic law. But the UN and others have warned that local Taliban leaders in some provinces are banning them from working and studying, as they did across the country in the 1990s.
A number of journalists covering a demonstration by Afghan women in Kabul on Wednesday were arrested and beaten by Taliban fighters before being released, according to their accounts and social media images.
Foreign leaders and diplomats had argued that the Taliban could prove more moderate this time around, helping to pave the way for the resumption of aid and security cooperation. But that hope is quickly fading.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday the international community is “concerned” by the Taliban’s new cabinet.
The interior ministry that has banned protests is now headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior member of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network that has historical ties to al-Qaeda. The US has designated it a terrorist group and Sirajuddin Haqqani is on the FBI’s most wanted list with a $10 million bounty.
Additional reporting by Fazelminallah Qazizai in Kabul