(Telegraph).Stranded Afghan translators should consider escaping the country over land borders rather than seeking air lifts from Kabul airport, the Defence Secretary has said, as UK troops prepare to withdraw before the end of the week.
On Wednesday, Ben Wallace told MPs that interpreters and other vulnerable Afghans seeking evacuation should “explore another route” to safety if they have not been called forward to the airfield in the capital yet.
Admitting that it was “not comfortable to say it”, he signalled there will be “a certain point” when the UK has to “make a decision” to end mercy flights. “I wouldn’t go forward [to Kabul airport] if you haven’t been called,” he said.
His intervention came as the deadline loomed for the drawdown of western troops in five days’ time on Aug 31. British forces are set to exit before the final US personnel leave.
Mr Wallace warned that trying to get to a “third country” in the region may be a “better option” for desperate Afghans, given the Taliban’s announcement that it does not want Afghan nationals leaving the country.
“It is higher profile going to the airport. That is where the Taliban will be focusing their efforts at the moment,” he said.
Mr Wallace warns that trying to get to a ‘third country’ in the region may be a ‘better option’ CREDIT: James Breeden
Acknowledging that “not everyone is going to get out”, he told MPs to prepare for “heartbreaking” stories from Afghans getting in touch over email and in person in coming weeks.
A British businessman living in northern London on Monday told The Telegraph how he feared for the safety of his wife, three children and elderly mother currently trapped outside Kabul airport.
The e-commerce trader, who is a British citizen and whose children are British nationals, said: “My family are not even close to the Baron Hotel, they are around the airport waiting for a chance that I will manage something for them.
“They are physically ok but mentally sick… My wife is crying, telling me that it is impossible to even travel 10 metres forwards, we cannot make it because we are ladies and we cannot do anything.”
He called on the Government to reveal its “plan B” for helping those left behind when the mercy flights end.
On Wednesday night the Government issued new advice for Britons in Afghanistan, urging them to leave the vicinity of Kabul airport due to the "ongoing and high threat" of a terror attack.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Defence Office warned that the security situation in the country was "volatile" and added: "Do not travel to Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. If you are in the area of the airport, move away to a safe location and await further advice."
It came as a senior British source warned on Wednesday that there is a “very high risk of a terrorist attack” against the evacuation operation in its final days.
The UK Government is most concerned about Isis-K mounting their signature attack – a suicide bomb followed by a small arms fire assault – at Kabul airport.
British soldiers have set up barriers around the evacuation handling centre to protect against a car bomb or individual suicide bomber and military planners are alive to the threat.
At least 1,500 Afghan translators and other local staff formerly employed by Britain are yet to be rescued, although ministers remain confident the majority of this group will be airlifted before the UK forces’ exit.
The UK is set to evacuate another 2,000 people from the Central Nation in the next 24 hours. So far almost 11,500 people have been rescued from Afghanistan by the RAF since August 13.
However, government sources admitted that British nationals would be left behind after the military evacuation ended, along with vulnerable Afghans eligible to apply for resettlement in the UK.
Britain has declined to confirm when the final civilian evacuations and its military withdrawal will take place in coming days, amid fears of triggering a surge in the crowds or a terror attack at Kabul airport.
The Pentagon confirmed that while the US armed forces will continue to evacuate people until the deadline, they will prioritise the extraction of 5,400 American troops and military equipment in the last few days beforehand. Poland halted its withdrawal efforts on Wednesday.
Mr Wallace told MPs there was an average 16-hour wait at Abbey Gate, the UK gate at Kabul airport.
He said he had information to suggest that the Taliban would seek to keep the airport operational once western forces leave next Tuesday.
The Taliban told Germany that Afghans with legal documents will be able to travel on commercial flights beyond Aug 31, a senior German diplomat said.
British citizens and dual nationals residing in Afghanistan being relocated to the UK
British citizens and dual nationals residing in Afghanistan being relocated to the UK CREDIT: LPhot Ben Shread
Nonetheless, Mr Wallace said moves are afoot to “beef up” British embassies and consular operations in countries neighbouring Afghanistan, including Pakistan, in order to process Afghans seeking to come to the UK more quickly.
He added that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is preparing to change the regulations to speed up the process.
The number of Afghans coming forward to seek evacuation to the UK has far exceeded the Government’s estimates, it is understood.
As the final phase of the airlift evacuation approaches, British soldiers are left with only the clothes they are standing in, their weapons, and small “day sacks”, it is understood. The bulk of military equipment and stores have been sent ahead in anticipation of the troop drawdown.
The window of opportunity for Afghan interpreters who served with British forces to be airlifted out is swiftly narrowing.
James Glancy, a former Royal Marine trying to get out former interpreters, said only 33 of his evacuation list of 135 had made it.
He said: “The chaos at the airport and the diminishing timeline are making this an horrendous task to get them all out.”
Andrew Fox, a former paratrooper, added: “I’ve been helping a chap on the refugee scheme. He’s been called forward to the airport and has been touching the gate for 24 hours.
“His name hasn’t been called by the ‘local security’ as they’re taking bribes. Those who pay, get in. It’s not an option for this guy. It’s appalling.”
Placeholder image for youtube video: qD1cJOiQzC4
Another man, Najibullah Alizadeh, posted a video of blood pouring from his own head. He said: “They [the Taliban] hit me. I am Australian citizen.”
Claims of Taliban reprisals emerged elsewhere in the country, including reports that the Islamist group shot dead a former provincial police chief in a revenge attack despite promises of a general amnesty.
Sakhi Akbari was deployed in the western Farah province, where security forces fought fiercely with the Taliban over several years before the Islamists’ sudden takeover.
It was also reported that Taliban soldiers beat up Ziad Yaad, a journalist for independent news channel Tolo News, while he was filming in central Kabul on Wednesday.
At the main Abbey gate entrance to the airport, the air is filled with the stench of sewage and the street littered with the rubbish and debris of long, tense days of human despair.
Members of one of the Taliban’s elite “red units” were on Wednesday guarding the gate, wearing military fatigues and pushing back anyone who did not hold the necessary paperwork to pass through.
Refugees sat on the ground surrounded by rubbish and leaned in fatigue and dejection against meal containers under the searing sun. From inside the airport comes the constant roar of military transporters’ engines as planes take off several times an hour.
Young men perched on luggage unsure of the reality ahead. Two young boys who asked not to be named, said: “It is difficult, we don’t know when the wait will be over, and if the gate will open, do you know?”
Vast pools filled with contaminated water in between the street towards the military entrance, the air is thick with the smell of sewage.
A man in his 30s put his elderly mother into a wheelbarrow so he could wheel her to the other side as she was unable to physically walk.