'We did not get everyone out', PM says after 'despicable attack'

Craig Kapitan and Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 27 Aug 2021, 12:43PM

'We did not get everyone out', PM says after 'despicable attack'

Craig Kapitan and Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 27 Aug 2021, 12:43PM

Scores of people destined for New Zealand have been left behind in Afghanistan after a rescue mission was cut short following a "despicable" terrorist attack in Kabul.

New Zealand Defence Force personnel and the planeloads of people who they are evacuating from Afghanistan narrowly missed explosions that occurred at Hamid Karzai International Airport last night, resulting in dozens of deaths.

It came just eight hours after the NZDF's last flight into the capital, including to evacuate Afghan nationals who had assisted the NZDF, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warning "we did not get everyone out".

Two suicide bombers and a gunman attacked crowds at the airport, killing at least 60 Afghans and 12 US military troops, according to the Associated Press.

"Our thoughts and condolences are with all of those in Afghanistan who have lost lives or suffered injuries, including US forces, our other partners on the ground, and the families and friends of all who have been affected by this appalling attack," Ardern said today.

"We strongly condemn what is a despicable attack on many innocent families and individuals who were simply seeking safety from the incredibly difficult and fragile situation in Afghanistan."

Before the last flight, 276 people had been evacuated - including New Zealand citizens, residents, and visa-holders including Afghan nationals who had assisted the NZDF and their dependents.

Another 100 people were evacuated on the last flight including New Zealanders and Australians. It is unknown yet how many were destined for New Zealand.

As of yesterday there were 520 people registered on SafeTravel as being in Afghanistan, Ardern said.

"We cannot yet tell how many of those registered were among those evacuated. We know with certainty we did not get everyone out. We have more work to do."

Ardern said they were still not able to give a breakdown of how many and who was evacuated, and how many were remaining, and would release that information shortly.

They would be working closely with international partners to evacuate those remaining.

The NZDF C-130 Hercules would also remain in the United Arab Emirates until September 6 in case any further options opened up.

The final NZDF C-130 Hercules flight left the Kabul airport and safely landed in UAE before the explosions took place yesterday.

New Zealand's military has overseen three evacuation flights from Afghanistan's capital, which has become increasingly dangerous over the past month as the United States withdraws from the near-20-year conflict. The repressive Taliban, which ruled the country prior to the war, has been quick to declare power.

NZDF's mission has resulted in "hundreds" of people being evacuated from the country. They were initially taken to UAE but their final destinations are either New Zealand or Australia. The Australian military has acted in kind, also evacuating people who will now settle in New Zealand.

Ardern said 228 people have already departed United Arab Emirates for New Zealand.

"More eligible people are safely in transit after flying out of Kabul," Defence Minister Peeni Henare said.

"Because many are still being processed at bases outside Afghanistan, it's still too early to know total numbers."

About 100 people were on yesterday's final flight.

Ardern thanked the armed forces for conducting the mission "at short notice and under difficult conditions".

"We acknowledge the incredibly difficult position those still in Afghanistan are in.

"The situation in Afghanistan is incredibly complex and fragile and continues to change rapidly.

"Our next job is to consider what can be done for those who remain in Afghanistan still. That will not be a quick or easy task."

The Herald understands that several interpreters and other at-risk Afghan civilians haven't made it out of Kabul.

Their visas were finally granted yesterday but were told to stay away from the airport after the terror threat.

One ex-interpreter who the Herald managed to contact said they are stuck.

"We are now in limbo," he said.

"[I] hope there is a way out."

"Complex and dangerous situation"

Ardern described the evacuation as a "complex and dangerous situation" and praised the work of all of those involved.

"There will be a number of incredible stories coming out of these missions. It was extraordinary, they would have seen awful things."

Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short explained part of the complicated process for evacuating people from an airport descending into chaos and becoming increasingly dangerous.

One example involved a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official in Tehran, Iran, talking to Afghan officials on the ground in Kabul.

They would have those needing to be evacuated take photos of themselves and their visa and information, and that would then be passed on to the NZDF staff on the ground.

They would then have to go out and find those people in the crowd at the airport.

This all had to occur in the 90-minute windows afforded the different aircraft landing at the airport due to limited runway space.

Those getting to the airport were given directions of how to get safely to the aircraft.

Short said there were another two missions planned but these were on hold due to the situation on the ground.

"The threat [of the attack] was known to us. We made an assessment of the risk, which is why our last flight was yesterday."

Yesterday eight other nations also finished their missions. Another four would withdraw today leaving only the United States and United Kingdom on the ground, Short said.

They would be working closely with international partners to evacuate those remaining, he said. They would also remain in the UAE until September 6 in case any other options opened up to return.

He said New Zealand spent 20 years training and equipping the Afghanistan military and he believes it is a surprise to everyone just how quickly they folded to the Taliban forces.

Ardern said based on international reports it appeared the attacks could be linked to ISIS.

A number of prisons in Afghanistan have been opened up and those detained - including both Taliban and ISIS members - have been released.

"The situation is both dangerous and volatile," she said.