First civilian flight from Kabul since US exit lands in Doha
More than 100 passengers have arrived in Doha, Qatar after flying from Kabul airport on the first flight ferrying out foreigners since a US-led evacuation ended.
Qatar, a major transit point for Afghan refugees, has said it worked with Turkey to swiftly resume operations at Kabul’s airport to allow the flow of people and aid.
The flight, operated by state-owned Qatar Airways, landed at Doha’s Hamad International Airport on Thursday, marking the first successful flight of its type since the chaotic airlift of more than 120,000 people concluded last month.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from the airport in Doha, said there were about 113 passengers on board.
“The nationalities on board are comprised of Canadians, Americans, Ukrainians, Germans, British citizens and others,” Jamjoom said.
“They are transiting through Doha. After they clear customs they will be taken temporarily to a compound here in Doha, housing Afghan evacuees and Afghan refugees.”
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani praised the Taliban for allowing the flight to depart.
“We managed to fly the first plane with passengers… we thank (the Taliban) for their cooperation,” Sheikh Mohammed said in televised remarks.
“This is actually what we are expecting from the Taliban, to see these positive statements translated into action,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
“I think this is a positive message, that we are supporting.”
‘A positive first step’
The US also welcomed the completion of the landmark flight.
“[The Taliban] have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step,” US National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said some 13 UK nationals were among the passengers.
“We are grateful to our Qatari friends for facilitating a flight carrying 13 British nationals from Kabul to safety in Doha today,” Raab said in a statement.
“We expect the Taliban to keep to their commitment to allow safe passage for those who want to leave,” he added, noting that Qatar has acted as the “central intermediary” between the Taliban and the international community in recent years.
Numerous countries, including the UK and the US, have relocated their embassies from Kabul to Doha in the aftermath of the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan last month. The armed group seized control of the capital on August 15, with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.
Qatari and Turkish technical teams have helped restore operations at the airport, which was damaged during the chaotic evacuations of tens of thousands of people to meet the US troop withdrawal deadline of August 31.
Al Jazeera’s Jamjoom said the reopening of Kabul’s airport was “one of the things on the top of the agenda” when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met Qatari officials in Doha earlier this week.
“This is a big deal … it’s a very significant step,” Jamjoom said.
“Qatar is playing an outsize role on the world stage when it comes to Afghanistan because they are the primary interlocutors when it comes to the Taliban, they are the mediators and because of that you have a situation like today.”
Earlier on Thursday, Mutlaq al-Qahtani, Qatar’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said it was an “historic day” and that the airport was “fully operational”.
“We have been faced by huge challenges … but we can now say that the airport is fit for navigation,” al-Qahtani said from the tarmac in Kabul.
Taliban spokesman 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.
Al-Qahtani had earlier said another flight would take off from Kabul on Friday.
“Call it what you want, a charter or a commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes,” he said. “Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan.”
Alex Macheras, aviation analyst, told Al Jazeera that Thursday’s flight was a charter flight.
“This is not a commercial flight whereby the airline is selling tickets to [inaudible] paying passengers … as part of a schedule,” he said,
“Instead the airline has been paid by the government, which in coordination with other governments, offers almost rescue tickets if you like, to those who are stuck by operating individual, one-off special, charter flights. We see this all around the world when there is bad weather in places, when airlines go bust, and so on.”
The departure of a large group of Americans, a first since the US withdrawal, suggests 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.
Following the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the country in the wake of the troop withdrawal, extensive damage at Kabul airport raised questions over how soon the transport hub could resume for commercial flights.