Afghanistan: UK evacuation mission in its ‘final hours’, confirms defence secretary

·4-min read

The UK has shut the main processing centre near Kabul airport and the evacuation is into its final “hours”, defence secretary Ben Wallace confirmed today.

Mr Wallace said the explosion yesterday - that killed 85 people, including 13 US troops - did not “hasten our departure” but confirmed that not everyone will get out of the country.

He told Sky News: “We at 4.30 this morning, UK-time, closed the Baron’s hotel, shut the processing centre and the gates were closed at Abbey Gate.

“We will process the people that we’ve brought with us, the 1,000 people approximately in the airfield now and we will seek a way to continue to find a few people in the crowds where we can, but overall the main processing is now closed and we have a matter of hours.”

He added: “The sad fact is not every single one will get out.”

Local officials said at least 60 Afghans and 143 others were wounded in the two blasts conducted by suicide bombers near Kabul’s airport on Thursday, where people have been gathering in their thousands to try and board flights to leave the country.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed there had been no UK casualties. In an emotional address President Biden said they would “hunt down” the terrorists after 13 US personnel were killed.

Taliban stand at the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International airport on Friday (REUTERS)
Taliban stand at the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International airport on Friday (REUTERS)

Mr Wallace said that the terror attack “didn’t hasten our departure” and the main UK evacuee processing site was closed “almost exactly on schedule”.

“The threat is obviously going to grow the closer we get to leaving,” he told Sky News.

“The narrative is always going to be certain groups, such as IS, will want to stake a claim that they have driven out the US or the UK.

“We closed the Baron’s hotel almost exactly on schedule. The explosion was horrendous, but it didn’t hasten our departure.”

Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who last week spoke in the Commons of veterans’ distress at the “abandonment” of Afghanistan, said the move to shut the processing centre means that “many” will not now get out.

“I’m not giving up but my anger and shame for those we’ve left behind to be hunted by the Taliban is growing,” the chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the looming end of the evacuation from Kabul marks a “sad and dark day”, and the Government has “serious questions to answer”.

He said “with the withdrawal we face the heart-breaking reality that people have been left behind, including many to whom we owe so much”, as he demanded ministers “urgently help” those left behind.

“The British Government must take its fair share of the responsibility and has serious questions to answer about how, despite having 18 months to prepare, their failure to plan and inability to influence others has contributed to this tragic political failure,” he added.

Nearly 14,000 British nationals and Afghans were rescued in the mission since the middle of August, Mr Wallace said.

Afghans walk through a security barrier as they enter Pakistan through a common border crossing point in Chaman (AP)
Afghans walk through a security barrier as they enter Pakistan through a common border crossing point in Chaman (AP)

The defence secretary declined to give a timeline for the exit of British forces but acknowledged it would come before the Americans withdraw, with Joe Biden having set a departure date for Tuesday August 31.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is set to launch an inquiry after documents identifying Afghan workers and job applicants have been found on the ground at the British diplomatic mission in Kabul.

Labour said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has “serious questions to answer” and that the destruction of sensitive materials should have been a “top priority”.

A journalist from The Times found the documents containing contact details of seven Afghans while on a tour through the city’s abandoned diplomatic quarter accompanied by a Taliban patrol on Tuesday.

The newspaper said it called the numbers listed and found that some of the staff members had already been evacuated to the UK, but that others had been left behind.

Among them were three Afghan employees and eight family members, including five children, who were caught in the crowds at Kabul airport unable to access the British-controlled section of the facility. They were, however, eventually found and rescued.

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has acknowledged the apparent error, but said staff had tried to destroy sensitive material before leaving the embassy.

“We have worked tirelessly to secure the safety of those who worked for us, including getting three families to safety,” an FCDO spokesman said.

“During the drawdown of our embassy every effort was made to destroy sensitive material.”

The Independent is backing calls for the government to be far more ambitious in its plan to resettle those at risk of losing their lives amid the Taliban takeover after western troops withdrew.

Our Refugees Welcome campaign, originally launched during the 2015 migrant crisis, calls for the government to offer sanctuary to as many Afghans as possible and for local authorities and charities devoted to their welfare to be given the strongest of support.

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