More than 100 passengers leave Kabul in first flight since US pullout

Just over 100 passengers, including Americans, left Kabul airport on Thursday on the first flight carrying foreigners out of the Afghan capital since a US-led evacuation ended on August 30.

The first international flight came as the Taliban continue their transition from insurgents to governing power, less than a month after they marched into Kabul and ousted president Ashraf Ghani.

More than 100 passengers were on the Qatar Airways flight that landed in Doha on Thursday evening, 10 days after a mammoth, chaotic airlift of more than 120,000 people came to a dramatic close with the US pullout.

An Afghan-American dual citizen, waiting to board the flight with his family, said the US State Department had called him in the morning and told him to go to the airport.

“We got in contact with the State Department, they gave me a call this morning and said to go to the airport,” the father, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

In the days that followed the Taliban’s blitz, the airport had become a tragic symbol of desperation among Afghans terrified of the militants’ return to power — with thousands of people crowding around its gates daily, and some even clinging to jets as they took off.

More than 100 people were killed, including 13 US troops, in a suicide attack on August 26 near the airport that was claimed by the Islamic State group’s local chapter.

Away from the airport, there was a noticeably stronger Taliban presence on the streets of Kabul as armed fighters — including special forces in military fatigues — stood guard on street corners and manned checkpoints, according to AFP journalists.

– Waiting with suitcases –

Qatar has acted as the central intermediary between the Taliban and the international community in recent years, and numerous countries, including the United States, have relocated their embassies from Kabul to Doha in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.

Doha has said it worked with Turkey to swiftly resume operations at Kabul’s airport to allow the flow of people and aid.

An airport official in Kabul said just over 100 people boarded the flight. A source with knowledge of the operation in Doha said 113 were on board. Sources had earlier said that as many as 200 people were aboard.

The White House spoke in positive terms about how the Taliban handled the charter flight that included Americans.

“They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne added, stressing that efforts to facilitate such evacuations of Americans and Afghans who worked with the US mission would continue.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say at a press conference how many Americans were on the flight, saying the plane had only just landed and the US did not yet have all the details.

Earlier in the day Psaki said there were around 100 Americans still in Afghanistan and wishing to leave.

The United States “facilitated” Thursday’s departure of Americans and it thanked Qatar for its role, Horne said.

Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag tweeted to thank the Qatari government “for making this possible”, saying 13 of its nationals were on board the flight.

– Protest ban –

Most of the early Afghan evacuees were desperate to flee fearing Taliban reprisals for having worked with foreign powers during the 20-year, US-led occupation.

The Taliban have said they will not prevent anyone who wishes to from leaving the country, even as they have urged skilled Afghans, such as doctors and engineers, to remain.

The Islamist hardliners have pledged a more moderate brand of rule than in their notoriously oppressive 1996-2001 reign. 

However, they have shown clear signs that they will not tolerate opposition.

Earlier this week armed Taliban militants dispersed hundreds of protesters in cities across Afghanistan, including Kabul, Faizabad in the northeast and in Herat in the west, where two people were shot dead.

Late Wednesday, they moved to snuff out any further civil unrest, saying protests would need prior authorisation from the justice ministry, adding that no demonstrations were allowed “for the time being”.

One protest organiser told AFP rallies in Kabul had been cancelled because of the overnight ban.

– Promises of inclusion –

A Taliban interim government, drawn exclusively from loyalist ranks, formally began work this week with established hardliners in all key posts and no women -– despite previous promises of an inclusive administration for all Afghans.

All the top positions have been handed to key leaders from the movement and in particular the Haqqani network — the most violent Taliban faction, known for devastating attacks.

The dreaded Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — previously responsible for arresting and punishing people for failing to follow the movement’s restrictive interpretation of sharia — is being reinstated.

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