The last Canadian Armed Forces rescue flight from Kabul’s airport will depart Thursday, leaving thousands of people hoping for refuge in Canada to flee to third countries instead.
A senior government official told The Globe and Mail that a C-17 Globemaster plane is scheduled to fly out of Hamid Karzai International Airport mid-afternoon, Afghanistan time. It will carry Canadian nationals and Afghan refugees. Canadian Armed Forces solders will leave on later flights.
The United States has asked its military allies to leave the airport by Saturday so the airspace can be used to evacuate 5,800 Marines and soldiers, the source said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official, because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan confirmed to reporters Wednesday that Canada has to halt its rescue flights and withdraw special forces soldiers well before the final American withdrawal on Aug. 31.
“Drawing down takes considerable time. It is not done overnight and comes with significant risk. As the Americans finalize their drawdown to meet their deadline, partner nations including Canada must draw down our troops, assets and aircraft ahead of the Americans,” Mr. Sajjan said. “These moves are necessary for the U.S. to safely maintain control of the airport until they depart.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau acknowledged that thousands of people will be left behind in Afghanistan, including Canadian expats and many Afghan interpreters and former support staff who worked with Canada’s military and diplomats.
But Mr. Garneau pledged that Canada will honour special visas given to these Afghans and their families, provided they can escape to third countries where flights are more readily available.
“There is a possibility that we are not going to bring everyone we want out when the airbridge stops, but our commitment is to get those Canadians, permanent residents, their families and vulnerable Afghans out of the country,” he said. “That will remain our priority in the coming months.”
The federal immigration department has not released figures that reveal what percentage of Afghan nationals who have been granted approval to come to Canada still remain in Kabul.
But the Veterans Transition Network, a group of military veterans and other concerned Canadians, says it has been tracking the status of 694 Afghans who want to come to Canada.
By Aug. 25, only about 23 per cent of those Afghans had received approval for their applications to be resettled in Canada through special immigration measures.
And only 14 per cent had made it safely to the Kabul airport or been airlifted out of Kabul, according to data supplied by retired journalist Kevin Newman, who is volunteering with the network.
The final days of the airlift mission have been hampered by the Taliban, who have blocked Afghan nationals from leaving on evacuation flights, creating mass panic at the airport as tens of thousands of people desperately throng it, pleading for safe passage. The Taliban have said they do not want any more Afghan nationals leaving the country.
Afghans who have received special visas that would allow them to resettle in Canada have said that they can’t access rescue flights, because Canadian troops are only letting people with Canadian passports through the airport’s security perimeter.
The Globe and Mail heard a number of stories Wednesday about Canadian soldiers prioritizing Canadian passport holders and turning away or ignoring other evacuees.
On Wednesday, a family of four Afghans with Canadian exit documents made their fifth attempt to gain access to the Kabul airport, but it proved futile.
Shamsuddin Amin, his wife Jamila, his son Muhammad Mahdi and his daughter Manizha waited at a hotel near the airport. They had been directed to go there by an email from the Canadian government.
Mr. Amin’s other daughter, Mursal Amin, a journalist, said the family waited at the hotel for more than 12 hours.
A Canadian soldier arrived and announced the military was only taking people with Canadian passports into the airport. The soldier left and no others appeared.
The family has returned home. They are discouraged and pessimistic about their chances of getting a flight out, Ms. Amin said.
She could not say whether they would try again for the airport, or if they would try to find another way out.
“We will find some way to leave here,” she said.
In a second case, an Afghan man named Basir – The Globe is withholding his last name because he said he fears for his safety – said he and his wife and son approached a Canadian soldier at the Kabul airport perimeter Wednesday. They showed their Canadian exit documents to the soldier, but were turned away and told only Canadian passport holders would be accepted. He said he plans to try again Thursday.
A video posted on Facebook on Wednesday appears to show Canadian special forces ignoring the pleas of Afghans claiming to have Canadian exit documents and desperately trying to get into Kabul’s airport for the final wave of evacuation flights.
The video shows several Afghans standing in water and pleading with three soldiers wearing Canadian flags on their uniforms to let them into the airport.
“They are completely ignoring our messages, our yelling and shouting, and nobody is going to take care of us,” one man says in the videos.
The Canadian government has told former Afghan translators and support staff to wear red at the airport, so they can be more easily identified.
“We have been watching for the last three hours. We have approved visas, but nobody is going to take care of us,” the man says. “We are waiting for the Canadian guys. We are showing them our documents and we are asking them to at least support us to get out.”
Mr. Sajjan called the scene “heart-wrenching,” but defended the Canadian soldiers, saying they are under a lot of pressure to keep the airport secure in a high-threat environment where Islamic State terrorists are operating.
“Those are heart-wrenching videos that we have seen, but there are many examples of Canadian Armed Forces who are doing tremendous work taking Afghanis to safety,” he told a news briefing Wednesday.
Mr. Newman said people on the ground in Kabul are telling him that only a small contingent of Canadian soldiers is now visible at the airport.
“Our eyes and ears waiting for rescue say no Canadian Armed Forces have been seen today to protect and guide them into the processing area,” he said Wednesday.
He said the word among Afghans waiting for evacuation is that Canada’s immigration department very recently issued a great many exit visas, but that the effort was thwarted by Taliban roadblocks.
He added that among the many people stopped from approaching the airport are individuals bearing documents that appear to be Canadian.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of abandoning Afghanistan, saying Mr. Trudeau had six months to get people out but was too preoccupied with preparing for a snap election.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Canadian veterans from the war in Afghanistan had been urging the Liberal government to put an evacuation plan in place for months before the U.S. withdrawal.
“They had been warning Canada what would happen if a plan was not in place. Sadly, it looks like their worst fears are coming true,” he said.
At Wednesday’s media briefing on Afghanistan, Maryam Monsef, the Liberal Minister for Women and Gender Equality, referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”
She was imploring the Taliban to allow safe passage for Afghans out of the Central Asian country.
Ms. Monsef was later asked if she wished to retract her remarks, but she did not. “The reference to brothers is a cultural reference, of course,” she said.
She noted that Muslims refer to each other as brothers and sisters and added that she continues “to believe deeply that the Taliban are a terrorist organization.”
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