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A former royal marine who founded an animal shelter in Kabul has been forced to leave staff behind in Afghanistan as he evacuates the crisis-hit country with 173 cats and dogs.
Staff of the animal charity Nowzad, who helped bring pets to the airport in a convoy of two cattle trucks, were prevented from entering the military-controlled area at Kabul airport despite having been granted visas for the UK.
Pen Farthing told The Sun that armed Taliban militants had prevented his Afghan staff from boarding the private charter flight to Britain.
He said staff who had driven with him to the airport were prevented from crossing a line between the Taliban-controlled area and the British-controlled area.
“It was surreal to see British and Taliban side by side,” he said.
“It took about half an hour for the Taliban to release [us] and we drove to the British side. The driver had to get out at the crossing point and a British para took over the driving.”
Mr Farthing confirmed that he and his 94 dogs and 79 cats had been admitted to the airport for evacuation, and said British troops had provided assistance.
“They have put me in a warehouse and they have been really helpful loading and unloading the crates,” he said.
The evacuation of Farthing’s animals has provoked controversy after receiving a large amount of public support online.
A prominent Tory MP questioned why UK soldiers had been helping to rescue animals ahead of people, while defence secretary Ben Wallace complained that some of Mr Farthing’s vocal supporters had “taken up too much time” of senior commanders.
“We’ve just used a lot of troops to get in 200 dogs, meanwhile my interpreter’s family are likely to be killed,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
More than 1,000 former staff of UK agencies have been left behind in Kabul as the UK ends its evacuation mission on Saturday.
The rescue of Nowzad’s animals while Afghan refugees were left behind was reported to have caused anger in Whitehall.
“This is the first British government explicitly committed to idea of non-white people as equivalent to animals since the abolition of slavery,” one official told The Telegraph.
Alongside the animals, Mr Farthing brought 125kg of dry pet food, 72 tins, and 270 litres of water, as well as cleaning and disinfectant supplies to care for his animals and their crates during their long journey back to the UK.
Speaking about his staff members, Mr Farthing said: “It is just so depressing I had to leave them behind.
“Some of them came with me to the airport but they weren’t allowed to cross the line from Taliban to British control.
“I feel so many things. I feel very sad for them, I’m relieved for me and I feel happy for the animals.
“There were lots of tears when we said goodbye.”
The Ministry of Defence confirmed Mr Farthing and his pets were awaiting departure at Kabul airport, having been processed by the internal systems.
The ministry tweeted on Friday evening: “Pen Farthing and his pets were assisted through the system at Kabul airport by the UK armed forces. They are currently being supported while he awaits transportation.
“On the direction of the defence secretary, clearance for their charter flight has been sponsored by the UK government.”
Earlier on Friday, before he had been allowed to pass through the airport, Mr Farthing said that he and his staff had been “turned away” in the aftermath of the bomb explosions.
He tweeted: “The whole team & dogs/cats were safely 300m inside the airport perimeter. We were turned away as Joe Biden had created paperwork rules just 2 hours earlier.
“Went through hell to get there & we were turned away into the chaos of those devastating explosions.”
Mr Farthing and his animals had not yet left Afghanistan as of Saturday morning, reportedly due to flight delays. The Sun reported his flight was set to fly to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, before carrying on to the UK.
News of the animal charity’s staff being left behind comes as Britain’s civilian evacuation mission in Afghanistan is set to end. Speaking on the BBC on Saturday morning, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the armed forces, said “very few” civilian flights were still taking place.
“We’re nearing the end of the evacuation, which will take place during the course of today. And then it will be necessary to bring our troops out on the remaining aircraft.
“We haven’t been able to bring everyone out, and that has been heart-breaking. And there have been some very challenging judgements that have had to be made on the ground,” he added.
Mr Farthing has been campaigning for weeks to enable Nowzad staff and their families, along with animals cared for by the charity, to be safely evacuated, in a project known as “Operation Ark”.
Through private donations, a private charter flight was funded to fly the group – and potentially 120 additional people – out of Afghanistan, with the animals in the plane’s cargo hold.
Mr Tugendhat said his contention centred not on plane capacity but on the use of allied troops and resources as the UK rushed to evacuate as many people as possible in the rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
He said: “As one interpreter asked me a few days ago, ‘Why is my five-year-old worth less than your dog?’
“I didn’t have an answer.”