An RAF rescue mission repatriating British nationals and Afghan evacuees fleeing Taliban tyranny landed at Brize Norton last night – but thousands more trapped in Kabul were left fearing for their lives.
The passengers touched down in Oxfordshire as UK troops try to repatriate at least 6,000 British personnel and translators from the Middle Eastern country after it fell to Taliban militants last week.
In Hamid Karzai International Airport on Tuesday, Islamists opened fire on a crowd of Afghans trying to flee Taliban rule, with harrowing images showing a young child with a bloodied head being carried by a man while a woman lay wounded in the road.
But in Brize Norton last night, people were seen disembarking an RAF Voyager A330 aircraft – with passengers pictured peering over the tops of their masks through the plane windows and giving photographers on the tarmac below thumbs-ups.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson held a telephone conversation with Joe Biden earlier on Tuesday urging the US President not to throw away the gains of the last 20 years.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister also reminded Mr Biden of the need to protect the West against terrorism amid a wave of criticism from US media and British and European politicians over the withdrawal.
Mr Johnson is preparing to announce to Parliament that Britain will accept as many as 25,000 refugees over five years, in one of the biggest resettlement schemes in the country’s history.
Streams of people, some clutching immigration documents, queued under the guns of armed Taliban in Kabul airport as Apache helicopters buzzed through the air. However, Admiral Sir Ben Key, the commander of the British evacuation mission admitted the Taliban could order it to stop at any moment.
In frantic messages to the Mail, trapped Afghan translators said militant gunmen wanted to kill them before they could board RAF mercy flights. Several interpreters said they were hiding with their young families close to the airfield, but could not reach sanctuary because of the Taliban checkpoints littered across Kabul.
At least 12 military flights took off from Kabul on Tuesday, including three UK planes as the Ministry of Defence aims to ferry up to 7,000 Britons and Afghan allies out. Most are heading to other stable parts of the Middle East, where the passengers catch charter flights back to Britain.
Some 370 UK embassy staff and British nationals were flown out by the RAF on Sunday and Monday, adding to the 289 Afghan nationals transported last week. A further 350 Britons and Afghans should be taken out of the country in the next 24 hours – but the pace will need to be stepped up dramatically if those at highest risk are to get to safety.
There are at least 56,000 people who need evacuating from Afghanistan – including 22,000 flying on US special immigrant visas, 4,000 British nationals, 10,000 refugees Germany has said it will accept, and 20,000 bound for Canada. In reality, that number is likely to be far higher once diplomatic staff from other countries with relations with Afghanistan’s former government are taken into account.
The US said it may issue 80,000 special immigrant visas to those who helped with combat operations and are likely to face revenge attacks from the Taliban, while 7,500 troops guarding the airport – including 6,000 Americans and smaller numbers of British, Turkish and Australians – will also need to leave.
Spain, France and India confirmed their diplomatic staff were evacuated on Tuesday. Russia and Indonesia said their embassies will be partially evacuated, while the EU mission said staff including its ambassador Andreas Von Brandt are still in the country and will need to leave.
It comes as the Taliban held its first press conference on Tuesday as the regime’s co-founder and political chief Mullah Baradar arrived in Kandahar province after 20 years of exile, confirming their grip on power.
During the briefing, a spokesman claimed women would not be persecuted under their Islamist regime – though fears remain of a return to the Taliban’s war on women in the 1990s, when female Afghans were beaten in the streets, publicly executed, and denied work or education.
In other developments:
An exclusive poll for the Mail revealed that the British public believe Mr Biden is most to blame for the crisis, and two-thirds say the decision to pull out of Afghanistan was wrong;
The poll also showed that the public fear the turmoil will lead to fresh terror attacks on our soil;
The Taliban’s leaders claimed they would ‘like to live peacefully’;
Mr Johnson suggested the new Taliban government could be recognised internationally if it upheld human rights standards;
Emmanuel Macron was under fire after he said France would ‘protect’ itself from migrants fleeing the crisis;
It was claimed the Foreign Office had pulled all of its diplomats out of Kabul apart from the ambassador himself – creating havoc for Afghan interpreters wanting to leave;
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab conceded he would not have left the UK for a five-star Crete holiday had he known what would unfold over the weekend;
It emerged that Afghans who apply to come to Britain are being rigorously checked for links with radical Islamist groups and crime;
The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the ‘tragic failures’ in Afghanistan and called for rapid humanitarian help for its people.