British civilians evacuated from Afghanistan amid a Taliban takeover have touched down in the UK after fleeing from the advancing extremists.
The first group of embassy staff and British nationals arrived at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire last night, following a rapid SAS-backed rescue mission – dubbed ‘Op Pitting’.
Officials were forced to step-up evacuation plans after Taliban fighters yesterday stormed into Kabul and took control of the capital.
Initially it had been hoped that the evacuation mission would be carried out across the rest of August, while US intelligence had expected the Afghan capital to hold out for up to three months.
But Taliban fighters were heard shooting guns on the outskirts of the city yesterday morning. By the end of the day the group had captured the Presidential Palace and released footage in which they claimed control of the country.
Along with the UK, the US also stepped up its evacuation plans yesterday. US Air Force Chinooks were seen airlifting staff from the American embassy in Kabul yesterday – in scenes mirroring the 1975 evacuation of Saigon.
British civilians fleeing Afghanistan amid a Taliban takeover touched down in the UK last night after escaping the country
The first group of embassy staff and British national arrived at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire last night, following an SAS-backed rescue mission – dubbed ‘Op Pitting’
The Armed Forces, including Special Forces units, are supporting the evacuation of British nationals and those eligible for relocation under the Government’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Program
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces
Taliban fighters guard a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Monday after the group swept the capital, forcing President Ashraf Ghani to flee
Taliban members were seen patrolling the streets of Kabul on Monday as the US and UK hurried to evacuate their ambassadors and citizens from Afghanistan
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace breaks down as he admits ‘some people won’t get back’ from Afghanistan
Ben Wallace choked up today as he vowed to fly hundreds of desperate Afghans out of the country within the next 36 hours – but insisted sending UK troops back in is not ‘on the cards’.
The Defence Secretary was overcome with emotion as he talked about the consequences of the collapse of the Western-trained Afghan army, after the Taliban walked into Kabul and took charge of the presidential palace.
He said the crisis had become inevitable after a deal was struck with the extremists and the US pulled out, and the focus was now on evacuating interpreters and others who might be subject to reprisals.
But he conceded that ‘some people won’t get back’. ‘It is sad the West has done what it has done,’ he said. ‘Twenty years of sacrifice.. is what it is.’
Mr Wallace – who himself served in the military before entering politics – said he felt the issue so deeply because he was a soldier.
The Armed Forces are supporting the evacuation of British nationals and those eligible for relocation under the Government’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Program.
Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, with support from RAF teams from around the world, to airlift British officials out of the Kabul.
Revealing that the first evacuation flight had landed in the UK last night, the Ministry of Defence said in a Twitter post: ‘Last night the first flight of British Nationals and Embassy Staff arrived at RAF Brize Norton as part of Op Pitting.
‘The UK Armed Forces are supporting the evacuation of British Nationals and those eligible for relocation under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Program.’
The rescue mission could eventually see thousands being evacuated from Afghanistan. Around 500 embassy staff are thought to be among those to be rescued.
Around 5,000 Afghan-English interpreters and their families are also seeking evacuation, as they fear being classed as ‘traitors’ by the extremist Taliban.
There are also thousands of British and dual nationality passport holders who may need evacuation to UK, and around 2,000 people with links to Britain who could also be eligible to leave Afghanistan for the UK.
It comes as the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan put plans to leave the country on hold – and remained at Kabul airport to help process the applications of those seeking to leave.
Despite the scramble to evacuate, the ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow was said to be remaining in the city last night.
Boris Johnson said he was at the airport helping to process the applications of those seeking to leave.
The Prime Minister has insisted Britain could ‘look back at 20 years of effort and achievement In Afghanistan’, as he argued he wanted to ‘make sure that we don’t throw those gains away’.
Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Laurie Bristow (right) remains in Kabul today, despite an SAS-backed operation to evacuate embassy staff amid a Taliban takeover of the city. Pictured left: The British embassy in Kabul
Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan
UK military personnel boarding an RAF Voyager aircraft at RAF Brize Norton on August 14, 2021 to travel to Afghanistan
Scramble to evacuate as UK pledges visas
Afghans whose lives are at risk from the Taliban will be able to come to Britain.
Government sources said the Home Office will set up a specific new visa route for those fleeing turmoil in the country.
‘We will make sure there is a bespoke route for Afghans in need,’ said a Home Office source. ‘We’ll ensure that we are leading the world on that.’
Exact details of the resettlement scheme had not been finalised last night but the source insisted it would be ‘generous’.
It is understood that the visa scheme will be closely based on an existing project run from 2014 to March this year that brought 20,000 Syrians to the UK with refugee status.
But when asked if Sir Laurie was among the hundreds already thought to have been rescued, a spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) told MailOnline: ‘We have reduced our diplomatic presence in response to the situation on the ground.
‘However our Ambassador remains in Kabul and UK Government staff continue to work to provide assistance to British nationals and to our Afghan staff.
‘We are doing all we can to enable remaining British nationals, who want to leave Afghanistan, to do so.’
Earlier reports had suggested Sir Laurie would be evacuated from Kabul on Sunday evening due to the Taliban’s rapid advancement into the capital.
It comes as at least five people have been killed at Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans tried desperately to get on flights out of the country amid increasingly chaotic scenes.
US troops fired shots in the air at Hama Karzai airport to prevent hundreds of civilians running onto the tarmac after they took over Afghanistan’s air traffic control. Witnesses said it was not clear whether the victims were killed by gunshots or in a stampede.
Panicked Afghans were also seen climbing up the outside of an airbridge in a bid to get onboard planes.
All commercial services have been suspended, with only military flights leaving the country as the UK, US and other western countries repatriate their citizens.
Almost all major checkpoints in Kabul were under Taliban control by Monday morning and Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority issued an advisory saying the ‘civilian side’ of the airport had been ‘closed until further notice’ and that the military controlled the airspace.
US troops fired shots into the air at Kabul airport today as desperate Afghans climbed up the outside of airbridges trying to flee as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan
Video posted social media showed hundreds of people trying to climb the outside of airbridges to board commercial liners grounded in Hamad Karzai airport
US troops fired shots in the air at Hama Karzai airport to prevent hundreds of civilians running onto the tarmac after they took control of the airport in Kabul and the country’s air traffic control
Boris Johnson urges the West NOT to recognise Taliban government
Boris Johnson is urging western countries to not recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and says the country must not become a ‘breeding ground for terror’, after he was seen posing for pictures with Team GB Olympians.
The Prime Minister has earlier posed for publicity pictures with athletes at an event in London as Downing Street said ministers and senior officials would meet on Sunday afternoon to discuss the worsening situation.
And it emerged Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had flown back to Britain from his overseas holiday, breaking his silence on the war-torn country. He said the world must tell the Taliban ‘the violence must end and human rights must be protected’.
The Foreign Office refused to say where the Foreign Secretary was but said he was expected to land in the UK today.
Following an emergency meeting of Cobra yesterday, Mr Johnson called for a ‘united position among the like-minded’ and said it was ‘clear’ there is ‘going to be very shortly a new government in Kabul, or a new political dispensation’.
He said the situation in Afghanistan remains ‘difficult’, and the Government’s priority is ‘to make sure we deliver on our obligations to UK nationals in Afghanistan, to all those who have helped the British effort… over 20 years and to get them out as fast as we can.’
He told Sky News: ‘We don’t want anybody bilaterally recognising the Taliban, we want a united position amongst all the like-minded, in as far as we can get one, so that we do whatever we can to prevent Afghanistan lapsing back into being a breeding ground for terror.’
Taliban officials said everyone would be allowed to return home from Kabul airport if they decide to stay in the country and promised civilians would not be harmed. The group previously said westerners would be allowed to leave the country but that Afghans would be barred from departing.
US troops are guarding the airport and have taken over air traffic control, but all non-military flights are grounded. Early Monday morning, flight-tracking data showed no immediate commercial flights over the country.
Video posted social media showed hundreds of people scampering with their luggage toward the safety of the airport terminal with the sound of gunfire breaking out.
Boris Johnson has vowed to get as many as possible of the Afghans who worked with the UK out of the country as the Taliban stood poised to take control of the capital Kabul.
With President Ashraf Ghani fled, and insurgent fighters surrounding the capital, the Prime Minister said the situation was ‘extremely difficult’.
‘The Taliban have won with the judgement of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,’ Ghani said after fleeing.
After chairing a meeting of the Government’s Cobra contingencies committee he said the UK was determined to work with allies to prevent the country again becoming a ‘breeding ground for terror’.
Britain has sent 600 troops – including Paras from 16 Air Assault Brigade – to assist in the operation.
Meanwhile other Western countries were scrambling to get their people out, with helicopters shuttling from the US embassy to the airport while smoke was seen coming from the embassy rooftop as diplomats burned sensitive material.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said earlier on Sunday that US embassy staff were ferried by helicopter from the diplomatic compound to the airport, about 5km (3 miles) away on the northeastern side of the city.
‘We’re working to make sure that our personnel are safe and secure. We’re relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport,’ Blinken told ABC news.
Asked if the evacuation was evocative of the US departure from Vietnam in 1975, he said: ‘Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon.’
A US Chinook helicopter flies over the city of Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound after the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital
The Chinook helicopter was seen taking to the skies above the city – just like in 1975 when a US Marine helicopter was seen evacuating embassy staff from Vietnamese capital (pictured)
The US Embassy in Kabul has been ordered to destroy sensitive materials and evacuate as Taliban fighters move in on the capital
Security Engineers will stay behind as they continue to burn, shred and pulverize 20 years worth of intelligence stored on electronics and in documents. Pictured: Smoke rises next to the US Embassy in Kabul today
Sources told Reuters that most U.S staff were expected to be evacuated from Kabul in the coming day or two.
A NATO official said all commercial flights had been suspended and only military aircraft were allowed to operate. The alliance said it was helping to keep the airport running.
France and Germany, members of NATO, said on Sunday they were moving their diplomats to the airport and sending military transport planes to Kabul to evacuate their citizens and their Afghan helpers.
A US intelligence assessment earlier in the week had said Kabul could be encircled in 30 days and could fall to the Taliban within 90 days, but the insurgents captured most of Afghanistan’s major cities in less than a week and entered the capital on Sunday.
Some 4,200 people remained in the US embassy until Thursday, when the Taliban’s rapid gains forced the Biden administration to begin flying in thousands of troops to help pull out many of the remaining diplomats.
Victorious Taliban commander claims he ‘spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay’ in triumphant speech from Kabul palace as Islamists seize Afghanistan – while thousands fight to flee country in chaotic scenes at airport
A Taliban commander claimed he spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay in a triumphant speech from inside the Presidential Palace in Kabul as the militants declared an Islamic state of Afghanistan after the country’s president joined thousands of Afghan nationals in a mass exodus.
Taliban fighters marched into the ancient palace on Sunday and demanded a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ as the capital city descended into chaos, with US helicopters evacuating diplomats from the embassy in scenes echoing the 1975 Fall of Saigon which followed the Vietnam War.
There were chaotic scenes at Kabul airport where thousands of desperate Afghans are gathering in an attempt to flee the country. Fighting and stampedes broke out between passengers before commercial flights were stopped and only military planes departed the terminals which are now guarded by US troops.
The Al-Jazeera news channel livestreamed the press conference from inside the palace, which showed a group of Taliban fighters sitting at the President’s desk before a fighter claimed he was a former inmate of the US-controlled Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
Established by George W Bush in 2002, suspected terrorists have been detained without trial and tortured at the facility. Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep the centre open indefinitely in 2018, while in February the Biden administration vowed to shut Guantanamo down.
A Taliban commander claimed he spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay in a victory speech from inside the Presidential Palace in Kabul as the militants declared an Islamic state of Afghanistan
A spokesman for the Taliban’s political office told Al-Jazeera TV on Sunday that the war is over in Afghanistan and that the type of rule and the form of regime will be clear soon.
‘We assure everyone that we will provide safety for citizens and diplomatic missions. We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection,’ spokesman Mohammad Naeem told the Qatar-based channel.
He said the group does not think foreign forces will repeat ‘their failed experience in Afghanistan again,’ adding: ‘We move with responsibility in every step and make sure to have peace with everyone… We are ready to deal with the concerns of the international community through dialogue’.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen vowed there would be ‘no revenge’ against those who worked with the previous Afghan government, but refused to guarantee that Afghans would be allowed to flee. ‘Our policy is that no one should leave the country’ he told the BBC. ‘We need all Afghans to stay.’
US-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country for Tajikistan, effectively ceding power to the Taliban and bringing the 20-year Western occupation of Afghanistan to an end, while thousands of Afghan nationals rushed to the Pakistan border in a bid to escape Islamist rule.
Mr Ghani said in a Facebook post that he escaped Afghanistan to ‘prevent a flood of bloodshed’, claiming ‘countless patriots would be martyred and the city of Kabul would be destroyed’ if he had remained. He did not disclose details on his current location.
Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country
Foreigners in Kabul were told to either leave or register their presence with Taliban administrators, while RAF planes were scrambled to evacuate 6,000 British diplomats, citizens and Afghan translators, and the British Ambassador was moved to a safe place. The US and French Ambassadors have already been evacuated as the US rushes to rescue more than 10,000 of its citizens.
Italy’s defence ministry said a first military plane would arrive on Sunday to begin ’emergency evacuation’ operations, while Denmark, Norway and Finland are temporarily shutting their Kabul embassies, with Finland to offer asylum to 170 local staff and their families.
However, the Kremlin’s envoy said that there are no plans to evacuate the Russian Embassy in Kabul, as China, Russia, Pakistan and Turkey all appear set to formally recognise the rule of the Sunni extremist group which was created after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The United States on Sunday led more than 65 nations in urging the resurgent Taliban to let Afghans leave the country, warning of accountability for any abuses.
‘The United States joins the international community in affirming that Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so,’ Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter as the State Department released a statement signed by its close allies.
‘Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility – and accountability – for the protection of human life,’ the joint statement said.
Bagram airbase was also surrendered to the Taliban by Afghan troops, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO to build up Afghan security forces. Upon its takeover, hundreds of Taliban and Islamic State terrorists being held prisoner there were freed.
Commercial flights were later suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the airport, according to two senior US military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for Afghans fleeing the country.
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
Taliban fighters stormed the ancient palace on Sunday and demanded a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ as the capital city descended into chaos
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan had ‘accelerated’ the current crisis and announced his government’s priority is to get UK nationals out ‘as fast as we can’ after chairing an emergency Cobra meeting in Downing Street. He also vowed that the Middle Eastern state must not become a ‘breeding ground for terror’ again.
But he was slammed by Tory MPs – including ex-soldiers Tom Tugendhat, Johnny Mercer and Tobias Ellwood – for presiding over Britain’s ‘biggest single foreign policy disaster’ since Suez and called for UK troops to be redeployed. They also called the crisis a humiliation for the West.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was accused of ‘going AWOL’ after spending the past week on holiday abroad while the Afghanistan crisis unfolded. The British Foreign Office said he was returning to the UK on Sunday and was ‘personally overseeing’ the department’s response to the situation.
President Joe Biden vowed that any action that puts Americans at risk ‘will be met with a swift and strong US military response’. He also swiped his predecessor Donald Trump for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, claiming he left the group ‘in the strongest position militarily since 2001’.