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US considers having airlines help with refugees

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The Biden administration is considering calling on U.S. commercial airlines to provide planes and crews to assist in transporting Afghan refugees once they are evacuated from their country by military aircraft.

The U.S. Transportation Command says in a statement Saturday that the Pentagon has not approved or ordered any activation of commercial airlines as allowed under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, which adds to military aircraft capability during a crisis related to national defense.

However, the Transportation Command said it had issued a warning order to U.S. carriers Friday night on the possible activation of the program. The order was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

If called upon under the voluntary program, commercial airlines would transport evacuees from way stations outside Afghanistan to another country or from Virginia’s Dulles International Airport to U.S. military bases.

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U.S. Marines provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

Pentagon said that about 3,800 civilians have been evacuated from Afghanistan over the past day, amid widespread logistical challenges and backlogs at waystations in the Middle East and Europe.

Security threats slowed the progress of Americans and others through the gates at Kabul airport, as thousands desperately trying to get on flights out of the country.

The Pentagon said that six U.S. military C-17 aircraft and 32 charter flights departed Kabul airport over the past 24 hours. The military planes carried just 1,600 of those people.

Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, told Pentagon reporters on Saturday that of the 17,000 people evacuated since Aug. 15, just 2,500 have been Americans. U.S. officials have estimated there are as many as

15,000 Americans in Afghanistan, but acknowledge they don’t have solid numbers.

The evacuations have been hampered by screening and logistical strains at waystations such as al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which hit maximum capacity. U.S. officials said they have limited numbers of military and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol screeners at the transit points, and they are struggling to work through glitches in the vetting systems.

Taylor said that the Kabul airport remains open and that Americans continue to be processed if they get to the gates.
He and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to discuss security problems in any detail but said the threat picture changes by the hour.

“We know that we’re fighting against both time and space,” Kirby said. “That’s the race we’re in right now.”

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Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane, some climbing on the plane, as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug.16. 2021. (AP Photo)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says 13 countries have thus far agreed to at least temporarily host at-risk Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan. Another 12 have agreed to serve as transit points for evacuees, including Americans and others, leaving Afghanistan.

Blinken said in a statement that potential Afghan refugees not already cleared for resettlement in the United States will be housed at facilities in Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Uganda.

Transit countries include Bahrain, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan, he said.

“We deeply appreciate the support they have offered, and are proud to partner with them in our shared support of the Afghan people,” Blinken said. “We are encouraged by other countries that are also considering providing support. We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas and to fulfill our commitments to citizens of partner nations and at-risk Afghans.”

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In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command plays with children waiting to process during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

Meanwhile, the Russian ambassador in Kabul says the Taliban have asked his embassy to convey their offer of a deal to a remaining pro-government holdout in northern Afghanistan.

Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov said on Saturday that a senior member of the Taliban’s political leadership has asked Russia to tell fighters in the Panjshir Valley that the Taliban hope to reach a political agreement to settle the situation there.

The diplomat says the Taliban claim they don’t want bloodshed in the region.

The Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias that were allied with the U.S. during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, is the only area that hasn’t fallen to the Taliban.

Afghan government figures who have sought refuge there as Kabul and the rest of the country fell to the Taliban include Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he’s now the country’s rightful president after President Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with the Soviet troops’ withdrawal in 1989, has made a diplomatic comeback as a mediator during the past years, reaching out to various Afghan factions, including the Taliban.

by Associated Press

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