The military is resuming rescue flights from Kabul for Canadian nationals and Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover, after close to a week of delay related to bureaucratic complications and chaotic on-the-ground conditions.
One CC-177 Globemaster heavy lift aircraft departed Kuwait overnight on a trip of more than 2,000 kilometres to Kabul. When it arrives in the Afghan capital, it will begin immediate evacuation flights, according to the Department of National Defence.
A fresh complement of Canadian soldiers are already on the ground to help, having been flown there earlier on an allied aircraft.
Department of National Defence spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said the Canadian government will be using two Globemasters “on a rotational basis, and will continue to do so, as long the security situation permits.”
“The Globemasters are currently being reconfigured to carry the maximum number of people as safely as possible, and Canadian Armed Forces personnel are empowered to make decisions on the ground in the interest of saving human lives,” she said.
These new Canadian evacuation flights will be the first since August 15, the day Taliban fighters poured into Kabul.
In addition to Canadian citizens and members of a group of about 6,000 Afghans who are connected with Canada because they or their family members worked as support staff for diplomats or the military, Canada will also be flying out foreign nationals and Afghans destined for other countries, as part of an agreement with allies.
In turn, allies will be flying out Canadians, as well as Afghans headed for Canada. This is because the chaos surrounding the Kabul airport, to which thousands are trying to gain admission, may mean eligible evacuees can make it to an allied aircraft more easily than a Canadian one – and vice versa.
Ms. Lamirande said the Canadian soldiers on the ground will be using a “list of vetted and vulnerable individuals,” and will assist those listed with getting onto flights.
Under the latest Canadian airlift plan, vetting of passengers will not take place in Kabul. Instead, it will happen in third countries.
After being flown to those third countries, Afghan support staff who once worked for Canada and their families will be subject to biometric identification to ensure they can prove their eligibility for resettlement in Canada, the government said.
Ms. Lamirande said the departments of Global Affairs and Immigration are working with the United States and allied partners on measures including potential processing requirements for passengers destined for Canada but flying on allied aircraft.
The Kabul airport is protected by more than 4,500 U.S. troops. Numerous other countries have managed to fly aircraft out of Kabul, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Turkey, Spain, and Italy. However, many of the flights are taking off near-empty, because the Taliban are controlling access to the airport.
Several Afghan refugees in safe houses in Kabul received texts from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada late Thursday, telling them to head to the airport.
The messages, obtained by The Globe, instructed the refugees to avoid posting information about the upcoming flight on social media, which the Taliban monitor. They were also advised to return to the safe houses if they are unable to reach the airport or board the flight.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in an interview that the Globemaster planes and Canadian soldiers are intended to “create a surge” in Canada’s evacuation efforts. “We’re hoping to accelerate the pace of the evacuation effort on the ground,” he said.
He said Canada decided to move all required remaining security and background checks of Afghan evacuees to third countries in order to move people out “without compromising security.”
Evacuees will have to establish who they are when seeking to board a plane, Mr. Mendicino said.
At a campaign stop in Victoria on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said most of the 6,000 Afghans will not be able to board evacuation flights from Kabul, because the Taliban are blocking anyone who does not have a foreign passport from entering the airport.
“We are going to be there with aircraft, with spaces on aircraft. But unless the Taliban shift their posture significantly … it is going to be very, very difficult to get many people out,” he said. “We will get some people, certainly, but to get many people out, as many as we want, is going to be almost impossible in the coming weeks.”
Mr. Trudeau defended his government’s handling of the rescue operation. “There are real impediments on the ground in terms of getting people out,” he said.
The U.S. State Department issued an alert on Thursday saying that the American government cannot ensure safe passage to the Kabul airport and asking U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as their spouses and children, to make their own way there.
Earlier in the week, Canada evacuated all its diplomats, including Ambassador Reid Sirr, out of concern for their safety. This created difficulties for Afghans trying to get processed for special immigration visas. They had to submit their applications online and provide documents, such as passports, that many do not have.
Ambassadors and employees of the U.S., U.K. and France remained in Kabul to process visa applications and organize the evacuation of their nationals.
Retired major-general David Fraser, who is part of a group that has set up safe houses in Kabul for former Afghan support staff, said one reason other countries have flown out evacuees this week is likely that they had staff on the ground to vet and confirm documents.
The Canadian Armed Forces had 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 a Canadian government official. Another Canadian official said one plane recently was affected by a service issue. The Globe is not identifying the officials, because they were not authorized to discuss these matters publicly.
Canada has pledged to resettle up to 21,000 Afghan refugees, including the 6,000 support staff and family members. As of Wednesday, more than 800 had arrived in Canada.
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. The government said it will likely take about a year to bring that many refugees to Canada.
Mr. Trudeau said he met virtually with members of the Afghan-Canadian community Wednesday night and promised to continue efforts to bring refugees to Canada.
He will participate in an online meeting of G7 leaders next week to discuss a common strategy for the situation in Afghanistan. Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi is also working to organize a summit on Afghanistan for the Group of 20 major economies.
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