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UK seeks extension of Kabul evacuations

KABUL: A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) shows members of the British (left) and US Armed Forces posing for a photograph while working at Kabul Airport Sunday. – AFP

LONDON/WASHINGTON: Britain said yesterday it would urge the United States to extend an end-of-the-month deadline for evacuations from Afghanistan, while the Taleban warned any delay would lead to “consequences”. US President Joe Biden has set an August 31 deadline for the chaotic airlift organized by thousands of temporarily deployed US troops, but has left the door open to an extension if needed.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would “try to raise the prospect of seeing if the United States will extend” the deadline at an online leaders meeting of the G7 group of wealthy nations today. But a spokesman for the Taleban, Suhail Shaheen, told Sky News that the hardline Islamist group would not agree to any extension of the deadline, calling this a “red line”, with any delay viewed as “extending occupation”.

“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations-the answer is no. Or there would be consequences,” Shaheen said. “If they are intent on continuing the occupation, it will create a reaction,” he added. The UK defense minister stressed that the evacuations from Afghanistan’s capital could only be maintained beyond August 31 if led by the US.

“It’s really important for people to understand the United States have over 6,000 people in Kabul airport and when they withdraw that will take away the framework… and we will have to go as well,” Wallace told reporters in Scotland. “If their timetable extends even by a day or two, that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people,” he said. “Because we are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.” Britain currently chairs the G7, which also comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

Taleban faces choice
Britain’s armed forces minister James Heappey told Sky News that the “hard reality” was that the Taleban had a crucial say, now that they control Afghanistan. “I think everybody has to be clear that this is not just a discussion that happens between G7 leaders tomorrow, it is a discussion which happens with the Taleban,” he said. “The Taleban will have a choice, they can either seek to engage with the international community and show that they want to be a part of the international system.

“Or they can turn around and say there is no opportunity for an extension.” Britain, which has deployed 1,000 soldiers to aid its airlift efforts, is pushing for longer to get out everybody who qualifies, with the trans-Atlantic allies’ defense ministers speaking by phone Sunday. London has so far evacuated 5,725 people from Kabul since August 13, including more than 3,100 Afghan individuals and their families, according to the defense ministry.

Heappey said early yesterday the UK expects a further nine flights to depart over the next 24 hours. He told Times radio that Afghans who are eligible for asylum in the West were also fleeing the country overland and showing up at embassies in neighboring countries such as Pakistan. President Joe Biden on Sunday said he still hopes to complete the “heartbreaking” evacuation from Afghanistan by the end of the month but warned of potential terrorist attacks against the crowded Kabul airport.

As the numbers of evacuees steadily rose, despite a volatile situation on the ground and enormous logistical difficulties, Biden said he was aiming to complete the task by August 31, the date agreed with the Taleban. Speaking in the White House, he said his “hope is we will not have to extend.” “We’ll see what we can do,” he added, when asked by reporters what his reply was to foreign leaders asking for more time.

The White House said late Sunday that since last weekend, when the Taleban completed their victorious sweep across Afghanistan by capturing Kabul from the fleeing national government, the US “has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 30,300 people on military and coalition flights.”

Biden acknowledged the searing scenes of Afghans crowding the airport in desperation to escape the militants but said this had to be accepted, given the situation. “There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see,” he said. Underlining why US officials are keen to complete the mission as soon as possible, Biden warned that Islamic State extremists known as ISIS-K pose a constant threat. – AFP

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