Some 200 foreigners, including 43 Canadians, fly out of Kabul on commercial flight
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says Canadians on flight 'will be repatriated to Canada'
Some 200 foreigners, including Canadians and Americans, left Afghanistan on an international commercial flight out of Kabul on Thursday with the co-operation of the Taliban — the first such large-scale departure since U.S and foreign forces completed their frantic withdrawal over a week ago.
The Qatar Airways flight to Doha marked a breakthrough in the bumpy co-ordination between the U.S. and Afghanistan's new rulers.
A days-long standoff over charter planes at another airport has left hundreds of mostly Afghan people stranded, waiting for Taliban permission to leave.
WATCH | How will the Taliban proceed?
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media, said the Taliban's foreign minister and deputy prime minister helped facilitate the flight.
Americans, U.S. green-card holders and other nationalities, including Germans, Hungarians and Canadians, were on the flight, the official said.
Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said another 200 passengers will leave Afghanistan on Friday.
Ten U.S. citizens and 11 green-card holders made Thursday's flight, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. Americans organizing charter evacuation flights said they knew of more U.S. passport and green-card holders in Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere, awaiting flights out.
Canada thanks Qatar for support
Later Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau issued a statement saying 43 Canadians were aboard the Kabul-to-Doha flight and "they will be repatriated to Canada in the coming days."
Garneau thanked Qatar for its "continued support" in helping secure passage for Canadians trying to exit Afghanistan.
"We are working tirelessly, including through close co-operation with our international partners, to bring home remaining Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families and the vulnerable Afghans who have supported Canada's work in Afghanistan," Garneau said.
The White House said before the flight that there were roughly 100 American citizens left in Afghanistan. But several veterans groups have said that number is too low because many citizens never bothered to tell U.S. officials they were in the country.
They also said it overlooks green-card-carrying permanent U.S. residents living in Afghanistan who want to leave.
Desperate to leave
Many thousands of Afghans remain desperate to get out, too, afraid of what Taliban rule might hold.
The Taliban have repeatedly said foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents could leave. But their assurances have been met with skepticism, and many Afghans have been unable to obtain certain paperwork.
U.S. lawmakers, veterans groups and others are pressing the Biden administration to ensure that former Afghan military interpreters and others who could be in danger of Taliban reprisals for working with the Americans are allowed to leave.
In the U.S., National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said Thursday's flight was the result of "careful and hard diplomacy and engagement" and that the Taliban "have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort."
"This is a positive first step," she said, noting the U.S. will continue trying to extract Americans and Afghan allies who want to leave.
As Taliban authorities patrolled the tarmac, passengers presented their documents for inspection and dogs sniffed luggage laid out on the ground.
Some veteran airport employees had returned to their jobs after fleeing during the harrowing chaos of the U.S.-led airlift.
Irfan Popalzai, 12, was among those boarding the flight with his mother and five brothers and sisters, and said his family lives in Maryland.
"I am an Afghan, but you know I am from America and I am so excited [to leave]," he said.
Kabul airport 'now operational'
The airport was extensively damaged in the frenzied final days of the U.S. airlift that evacuated more than 100,000 people.
But Qatari authorities announced that it had been repaired with the help of experts from Qatar and Turkey and was ready for the resumption of international airline flights.
"I can clearly say that this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan as Kabul airport is now operational," al-Qahtani said. "Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan."
The flight was the first to take off from the Kabul airport since American forces left the country at the end of August.
The accompanying scenes of chaos, including Afghans plunging to their deaths after clinging to military aircraft that was taking off and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, came to define the end of America's two-decade war.
Afghans who helped U.S. at risk
The airport is no longer the Hamid Karzai International Airport, but simply Kabul International Airport, with the name of the country's former president removed.
Several Taliban white flags flew from the terminal, which was emblazoned with: "The Islamic Emirate seeks peaceful and positive relations with the world."
Hundreds of other Afghans at risk for helping the Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board chartered evacuation flights. Many of them are believed not to have the necessary travel documents.
In Mazar-e-Sharif on Thursday, an Afghan who worked 15 years as an interpreter for the U.S. military was moving from hotel to hotel and running out of money as he, his eight children and his wife waited for the OK from the Taliban to leave.
"I'm frightened I will be left behind," said the man, whose name was withheld by The Associated Press for his safety.
The interpreter said he was one of many former U.S. employees whose special visas the United States approved in the last weeks of the American military presence in Afghanistan.
But with the U.S. Embassy closed when the Taliban took Kabul on Aug. 15, it has become impossible to get the visa stamped into his passport.
He said he doesn't trust Taliban assurances that they will not take revenge against Afghans who worked for the Americans.
"No, never," he said. "I never believe them, because they are lying."