Canadian Armed Forces are evacuating embassy staff from Kabul as Ottawa closed its diplomatic mission, hours after the hard-line Islamist Taliban entered the Afghanistan capital.
But former Afghan employees of the embassy, who are at risk of reprisals from Taliban forces, say they have been left behind and are begging for help as they wait to hear when the Canadian government will get them out of the country.
Early Sunday, Ottawa announced it was “temporarily” suspending its diplomatic operations in the city to ensure that embassy staff could get out of Afghanistan and return to Canada.
After Taliban forces appeared to take over much of the capital, the Canadian military described these departures in starker terms saying this was an evacuation effort supported by cargo planes and special-forces soldiers.
Andrew McKelvey, a spokesman for the Department of National Defence, said the military and special forces are involved in the evacuation of the embassy. “Canadian Forces air assets, including C-17 Globemaster and CC-130 Hercules aircraft, have been conducting flights out of Kabul to bring individuals to safety.”
Mr. McKelvey would not say how many people were on these flights, whether they included Afghan nationals or how the passengers were chosen. “For security reasons, we will not provide additional details about our operations.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked when and how Ottawa will evacuate former Afghan employees now that the Canadian embassy has closed, said the government will continue to process and support people seeking to come to Canada.
“Obviously the security situation is extremely concerning on the ground and the protection of Canadians and our armed forces are top of mind, but we continue to do the work on allowing and enabling people who have been there for Canadians, whether it’s interpreters or drivers or security or whatever, to make sure that they are coming to safety,” said Mr. Trudeau.
“There are also human-rights activists and civil-society leaders, journalists and community leaders who we are working with to try and make sure that we are offering them the safety and the future that they deserve.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan issued a joint statement Sunday saying that the situation in Afghanistan is rapidly evolving and poses serious challenges “to our ability to ensure the safety and security of our mission.”
The statement by the three government ministers in Ottawa said that “As always, our priority in these situations is ensuring the safety and security of Canadian personnel. They are now safely on their way back to Canada.”
“Our ongoing work to bring Afghans to safety in Canada under the special immigration measures will continue and will remain a top priority,” it said. The statement added that applications continue to be processed.
A federal government official said: “A Canadian flight left this morning with the closure of the embassy.”
Three Afghan nationals who helped Canada and its military describe via audio recordings the situation in Kabul. One says they are in hiding as they hear gunfire in the city, while another says they made it to the airport but were unable to get inside to find a flight out. The Taliban took control of Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the government collapsed.
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Alexander Cohen, a spokesman for Mr. Mendicino, added that no additional Canadian Forces flights into Kabul’s overwhelmed airport have been scheduled. But he said Canadian officials are negotiating to get space for potential evacuees on other countries’ scheduled evacuation flights.
Speaking in an interview Sunday, Mr. Cohen said the takeover by the Taliban will not prevent the Canadian government from trying to make good on a new pledge to bring an additional 20,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.
“The resettlement program we announced on Friday, as we said, it’s going to be for folks who have had to flee to Pakistan, to Tajikistan, to other nations, and who are going to then be resettled to Canada over the next year.”
The program is intended to bring to Canada women leaders, human-rights advocates, journalists, LGBTQ individuals, those who belong to persecuted religious groups, and families of interpreters already resettled in this country.
Three men who were previously employed by the embassy told The Globe and Mail that they are desperately waiting for Ottawa to arrange their flights to Canada. The Globe is not identifying them because of safety concerns.
One former employee who worked at the embassy for 15 years said “please help us,” his voice trembling. He said he sold everything, including his house, expecting to be evacuated and still has yet to hear when the Canadian government will evacuate him and his family.
Taliban insurgents entered Kabul on Sunday, sending a wave of panic over former Canadian embassy staff who have been waiting for Ottawa to arrange their travel. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar’s Al-Jazeera English satellite news channel that the insurgents are “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city,” but also acknowledged that they sought an unconditional surrender by the central government.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani left the country Sunday, joining his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
Another former employee of the Canadian embassy said his wife and children continue to cry. He sent a photo of his 4-year-old daughter and said “she loves me too much,” and another of four of his children standing side by side. He said he has filled out his forms to go to Canada, completed biometric testing and doesn’t know why he has not heard about his flight. He has also sold his home and has been hiding ever since his family learned they would travel to Canada.
A third former employee said early Sunday that the Taliban was just two kilometres from his home and said Canadian officials should at least bring them to the airport.
Last month, after increasing pressure to act, the Liberal government announced special immigration measures to bring thousands of Afghan nationals who worked for the Canadian Forces and Canadian diplomatic staff, as well as their family members, to Canada. Mr. Mendicino said at the announcement that “the risk of retribution from the Taliban is grave.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said his heart goes out to the thousands of military families who lost people in Afghanistan. “My heart is also breaking for the women and young girls there. That’s why Canada was there, our longest mission, and to think they are going to be subjected to those horrific conditions.”
With reports from Colin Freeze and The Associated Press.
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