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Hundreds of foreigners leave Afghanistan on commercial flight

Some 200 foreigners left Afghanistan on a commercial flight out of Kabul on Thursday, the first such large-scale departure since US and other forces completed their frantic withdrawal more than a week ago.

The Qatar Airways flight to Doha marked a breakthrough in the bumpy co-ordination between the US and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers. A days-long standoff over charter planes at another airport has left dozens of passengers stranded.

A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to talk to the media, provided the number of Westerners on the Qatar flight and said two senior Taliban officials helped facilitate the departure – the new foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

Americans, US green card holders and other nationalities, including Germans, Hungarians and Canadians, were aboard, the official said.

Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said another 200 passengers will leave Afghanistan on Friday. A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said foreigners, including Americans, will depart in the next couple of days.

It was not immediately clear how many Americans were on board on Thursday and how many were still in Afghanistan. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said before the flight that the US believed roughly 100 American citizens remained in the country.

Many thousands of Afghans remain desperate to get out, afraid of what Taliban rule might hold. The Taliban have repeatedly said foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents could leave. But their assurances have been meet with scepticism, even with the departure of the Qatar flight.

US lawmakers, veterans groups and others are pressing the Biden administration to ensure that former Afghan military interpreters and others who could be in danger of Taliban reprisals for working with the Americans are allowed to leave.

As Taliban authorities patrolled the tarmac on Thursday, passengers presented their documents for inspection and dogs sniffed luggage laid out on the ground. Some veteran airport employees had returned to their jobs after fleeing during the harrowing chaos of the US-led airlift.

Irfan Popalzai, 12, boarded the flight with his mother and five brothers and sisters. He said his family lives in Maryland.

“I am an Afghan, but you know I am from America and I am so excited” to leave, he said.

Before the flight took off, Qatari officials gathered on the tarmac to announce the airport was ready for the resumption of international commercial flights after days of repairs.

Extensive damage in the frenzied final days of the US airlift that evacuated more than 100,000 people had raised questions about how soon regular commercial service could resume. Experts from Qatar and Turkey have been racing to restore operations.

“I can clearly say that this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan as Kabul airport is now operational,” al-Qahtani said.

“Call it what you want, a charter or a commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes,” he added. “Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan.”

The flight was the first to take off from the Kabul airport since American forces left the country at the end of August. The accompanying scenes of chaos, including Afghans plunging to their deaths from the sides of military aircraft on takeoff and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US service members, came to define the end of America’s two-decade war.

Al-Qahtani said the airport’s radar is now active and covering some 112 kilometres after US forces left it inoperable. Authorities co-ordinated with Pakistan as they tried to fix control over the airspace, he added. Flights are restricted to daytime hours.

The airport is also no longer the Hamid Karzai International Airport, but rather simply Kabul International Airport, with the name of the country’s former president removed. Several Taliban white flags flew from the terminal, emblazoned with “The Islamic Emirate seeks peaceful and positive relations with the world”.

Hundreds of other Afghans who say they are at risk for helping the Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board chartered evacuation flights. Many of them are believed not to have the necessary travel documents.

Despite scepticism around the world, the Taliban have promised that Afghans who worked for the Americans will not be targeted.