OTTAWA — Forty-three Canadians were among around 200 foreigners on board a civilian flight out of Afghanistan on Thursday — the first such large-scale departure since U.S. forces completed their frantic withdrawal over a week ago.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau confirmed the departure and number in a statement as he thanked Qatar for facilitating the special flight from Kabul to Doha, which also contained U.S., German and Hungarian citizens.
“We can confirm that today 43 Canadian citizens were on board a special flight organized by the government of Qatar," Garneau said in a statement. “Canada has been working closely with Qatar to ensure safe passage for Canadian citizens still in Afghanistan who are seeking to leave, and we thank them for their continued support."
The 43 were among 1,250 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and family members stranded in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from the country on Aug. 30.
“We are working tirelessly, including through close co-operation with our international partners, to bring home remaining Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families and the vulnerable Afghans who have supported Canada’s work in Afghanistan,” Garneau said.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media, said the Taliban’s new foreign minister and deputy prime minister helped facilitate the departure.
A senior Canadian official had previously confirmed those on board did not include any former interpreters and other Afghans who previously worked with Canada in the country and are now desperate to escape for fear of Taliban retribution.
The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said the best avenue for escape for those people remains the overland route to Pakistan.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has deployed more staff to bolster the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, the official added, and more people are being sent to help there and at the border with Afghanistan.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is running for re-election as the Liberal candidate for University-Rosedale, said during a virtual news conference that Canadian officials “are working on having more people be able to come home through a variety of different routes.”
Retired major-general Denis Thompson, one of several Canadian veterans working to get Afghans who previously worked with the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan out of the country, said the Qatar Airways flight was encouraging.
Thousands of former interpreters, cultural advisers, drivers, cleaners and other locally engaged staff with links to Canada remain trapped in Afghanistan, and Thompson said reopening the Kabul airport is the best way to get them out of the country.
Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said another 200 passengers will leave Afghanistan on Friday. A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said foreigners, including Americans, will depart in the next couple of days.
The Taliban have repeatedly said foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents could leave. But their assurances have been met with skepticism, even with the departure of the Qatar flight.
As Taliban authorities patrolled the tarmac Thursday, passengers presented their documents for inspection and dogs sniffed luggage laid on the ground. Some veteran airport employees had returned to their jobs after fleeing during the harrowing chaos of the U.S.-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 U.S. airlift that evacuated over 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,” said al-Qahtani, the Qatari envoy.
“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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, which was emblazoned “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 skepticism around the world, the Taliban have promised that Afghans who worked for the Americans will not be targeted.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2021.
— With files from The Associated Press.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press