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U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, centre, is flanked by Sen. Chris Murphy, left, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen at a press conference at the military airbase in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sept. 1.Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal is urging the Canadian government to help find a safe third country to land charter flights stranded at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan, including people with Canadian travel documents.

The Democratic senator, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been working with NGOs and veterans groups to get two flights carrying about 705 people out of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Among those awaiting passage out of Afghanistan on the two charter planes are nine people with Canadian exit visas and a permanent resident of Canada. They were unable to board evacuation flights from Kabul and made the dangerous trek to the northern city.

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“Any country, including Canada, with visa holders and or the loved ones of their citizens on these planes should be doing everything it can to help facilitate their safe departure from Afghanistan,” Mr. Blumenthal said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. “I urge all of our international partners, including Canada, to do everything they can and to make every diplomatic effort to get our two planes off the ground and safely out of Afghanistan.”

Two U.S. sources said the Canadian government has not responded to the Democratic senator’s request for help. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The department of Global Affairs said it’s trying to help more Afghans flee but made no commitment to help this particular effort find a third country to land the charter flights.

“We are working in close coordination with allies to address the challenges around these flights and to hold the Taliban to its commitment to allowing safe passage for foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave,” department spokesman Jason Kung said in a statement.

“To the best of our knowledge, no civil flight has left Afghanistan since August 31,” he said. Canadian officials “are engaged with several groups currently on the ground at Mazar-i-Sharif airport, and will continue to work with them toward finding a solution.”

However a Canadian government official said Ottawa believes the best chances of getting these more than 700 people out of Mazar-i-Sharif would be to set aside the charter flight plan and seek an overland route instead because of the extreme difficulty in flying out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Globe and Mail granted the official anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The planes in Afghanistan, which have been chartered by Western donors, need a country to land in where they can transfer the passengers to different planes that are able to land in Albania, which has agreed to take all the people for processing. Qatar has refused to give them landing rights.

The U.S. sources said an option is for Canada to press Ukraine to allow the planes to land so the people can transfer flights to Albania and then transit to their destinations in Canada, the United States and other Western counties.

Ukrainian soldiers shooting into the air while yelling at desperate Afghans to get back as the Taliban fire weapons in the distance. That was the scene on Aug. 29 when soldiers escorted two mini-buses bearing Canada-bound Afghans inside the perimeter of Kabul airport to be evacuated on a Ukrainian military aircraft.

The Globe and Mail

The Ukrainian military carried out a daring rescue mission before U.S. forces left Kabul airport. Ukrainian troops went out into the city of Kabul on foot to escort two minibuses – carrying Canada-bound translators and their families, 19 people in all – onto the airfield for flights to Kyiv.

Ottawa lawyers Jacques Shore and Lewis Retik, who helped to raise funds for the two evacuation flights, have been pressing the Offices of Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino to help find safe third countries to land the evacuation flights, but to no avail.

“What Canada has to do is step up to the plate. What we have to do is ask countries, such as Ukraine, to take the flights and then get them to Albania so they can transit to other countries including Canada,” Mr. Shore said. “Canada should be opening its arms especially since the two planes are ready for take off.”

An Afghan Canadian, who worked for the Canadian Armed Forces and now lives in Ottawa, said six of his family members have been trying to get onto the two chartered flights. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the interpreter because of concerns his family in Afghanistan could be endangered.

People hold signs during a rally at the U.S. Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Sept. 8.Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

“The situation is pretty dire, including for my family members,” he said. “Because I am a Canadian citizen I ask the people at the highest level, and I know it is election time, but this is more important. This is the lives of 705 people.”

The interpreter, who lost a nephew in the suicide bombing at Kabul airport, said his family and the other passengers are hiding in safe houses in Mazar-i-Sharif.

But he is worried the longer Western countries delay in getting flights into the air, the “more dangerous” it will be for the passengers, of which many are women and children as well as human-rights activists, judges, lawyers and journalists.

The U.S. government has come under criticism for not doing more to help vulnerable Afghans and foreign citizens out of of Mazar-i-Sharif where planes chartered to carry people out of Afghanistan have been stuck at the airport.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday the United States was doing everything in its power to get the flights off the ground, but the Taliban were not permitting the flights to depart.

Earlier this week Mr. Blinken said Taliban authorities had not allowed charter flights to depart because some people lacked valid travel documents.

“Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” he said.

Retired U.S. Army veteran Dominic Lograsso runs with an American flag along the procession route honouring U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz on Sept. 8 at the I-70 Cave Springs exit in St. Charles, Mo. Schmitz was one of 13 U.S. service members killed last month in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.Laurie Skrivan/The Associated Press

Noting that there were no longer any U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. had no means to verify the accuracy of passenger manifests, among other issues.

But Mr. Blumenthal’s office has said it provided the State Department with manifests for the two flights and the senator himself took to Twitter to lambaste the U.S. government’s handling of the evacuation process.

“I have been deeply frustrated, even furious, at our government’s delay & inaction. There will be plenty of time to seek accountability for the inexcusable bureaucratic red tape that stranded so many of our Afghan allies,” Mr. Blumenthal said on Twitter.

Ottawa said last week that more than 1,200 Canadian nationals, permanent residents and their family members remain in Afghanistan. The government is advising them to stay in hiding while diplomats negotiate with the Taliban for their safe exit from the country. About 4,300 Afghan nationals who either worked for Canada or have family members who did so are also waiting to get out of Afghanistan once the Kabul airport is reopened to civilian aircrafts.

Mr. Trudeau has maintained that Canada outperformed many allies in airlifting people out of Kabul. He has said that 3,700 people were evacuated in August and more than 3,000 have now arrived in Canada.

Evacuees complained that the Canadian rescue mission was plagued by red tape, clogged phone lines in Ottawa and difficulty getting inside the Kabul airport’s security perimeter, where Canadian special forces were often nowhere to be found.

– With reports from Reuters

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