The Defence Department says the military is poised to resume evacuation flights from Kabul shortly, with the window of opportunity for the rescue operation set to close on Aug. 31.
Canada has been unable to get military aircraft into Kabul to evacuate expats and former Afghan support staff since the Afghan capital fell to Taliban forces last weekend.
Jessica Lamirande, a spokesperson for the Defence Department, said two heavy-lift CC-177 Globemaster planes have been assigned to conduct the evacuations.
“These flights will continue as long as the security situation on the ground permits,” Ms. Lamarinde said.
The only reason the Kabul airport is open to evacuation flights is that it is under the protection of American soldiers. But they will be departing Afghanistan at the end of month, according to a withdrawal deadline set by the United States government.
A senior government official told The Globe and Mail that it is doubtful that many Afghans who worked as support staff for Canada’s military or diplomats will be airlifted out of Kabul before the final U.S. withdrawal. Including their family members, there are about 6,000 of them.
These Afghans will likely have to find other means of getting out of the country so they can be resettled in Canada, the official said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source, because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the Afghan evacuation operation.
During a federal election campaign stop on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the U.S. and other allies are pressing Taliban leaders to allow people to travel safely through checkpoints to the airport. Security experts say the Taliban are likely to wave through people with Canadian passports, but the safety of former Afghan translators and fixers who worked for Canada is in doubt.
The Taliban are reportedly doing house-to-house searches in Kabul for Afghans who had co-operated with Western military forces.
Mr. Trudeau said Canada stands ready to resettle former Afghan support staff and their families, but he conceded they will likely have to find ways to travel to third countries if they can’t get to the airport.
“We just need people to be able to get to the airport,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Right now, the Taliban are preventing them from being able to do so, which is why we see a number of planes airlifting people out that have not been full.”
The Canadian Armed Forces have at least twice made plans to fly to Kabul from the U.S. airbase in Kuwait since Monday, but those flights were shelved because of chaos at the city’s airport and priority given to U.S. rescue operations, according to the Canadian official. Another Canadian government official said one plane recently was affected by a service issue. The Globe is not identifying the official, because they were not authorized to discuss aircraft matters.
Retired major-general David Fraser, who is part of a Canadian group that has set up safe houses in Kabul for about 800 former Afghan support staff, urged Ottawa to do everything it can to get them on evacuation flights before the U.S. withdrawal.
“That is a lot of time to move a lot of people. The hardest part is getting the people to wherever they are hiding in town to the airport,” he said. “Let’s get airplanes on the ground and tell these people to be at the airport in four or six hours. That is what we should be saying as opposed to throwing in the towel and saying we failed.”
The Trudeau government has pledged to resettle up to 21,000 Afghan refugees, including the 6,000 support staff and family members, according to Alexander Cohen, press secretary to federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.
Another 15,000 of the total will be Afghans who have fled to a third country and are identified as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Mr. Cohen said.
He said it will likely take about a year to bring that many refugees to Canada. As of Wednesday, more than 800 had arrived in Canada.
Mr. Cohen said the number of evacuated refugees will depend on how many can be airlifted while the window of opportunity in Kabul remains open.
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