The first international commercial plane has departed from Kabul airport since Western countries finished evacuations from Afghanistan 10 days ago, with a top Qatari official saying the airport is “fully up and running”.
The airport is “about 90 per cent ready for operations but its reopening is planned gradually,” said Mutlaq al-Qahtani, Qatar’s special envoy to Afghanistan. “This is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan as Kabul airport is fully operational. We have been faced by huge challenges … but we can now say that the airport is fit for navigation,” he said.
About 200 foreigners, including Americans and Canadians, flew out of Afghanistan on an international commercial flight from Kabul airport on Thursday, September 9, 2021, the first such large-scale departure since U.S and allied forces ended the frantic withdrawal at the end of August.
The Qatar Airways flight to Doha marked a significant breakthrough in the unsettled co-ordination between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers.
The Qatari capital, Doha, has become a major transit point for refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and who were brought out on evacuation flights.
A stand-off over charter planes at another airport had left dozens of passengers stranded and cast doubt on Taliban assurances to allow foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents to leave the country.
An anonymous U.S. official said that two very senior Taliban officials helped facilitate the departure of Americans, green-card holders as well as Germans, Hungarians and Canadians who were on the flight.
As Taliban authorities patrolled the tarmac, passengers presented their documents for checking, and dogs sniffed luggage laid out on the ground. Some of the veteran airport workers had returned to their jobs after fleeing during the harrowing chaos of the U.S.-led airlift.
Irfan Popalzai, 12, was among those boarding the flight with his mother and five brothers and sisters, and 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.
The departure of a large group of Americans, a first since the US withdrawal, would also signal that US officials have come to an arrangement with the new Taliban rulers.
In recent days, there had been a standoff between the Taliban and organisers of several charter planes who had hoped to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans from an airport in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Taliban has said it would let passengers with valid travel documents leave, but that many of those at the airport in northern Afghanistan did not have such papers.
As the group prepared to board earlier, Qatari officials gathered on the tarmac of Kabul airport to announce the airport was ready for the resumption of international commercial flights after days of repairs.
Technical experts from Qatar and Turkey helped restore operations at the airport, which was damaged during the chaotic evacuations of over 100,000 people to meet the US troop withdrawal deadline of August 31.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid thanked Qatar for its assistance in making the airport operational and for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
“In the very near future, the airport will be ready for all sorts of flights including commercial flights,” he said, standing beside Qatari officials at the airport tarmac.