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Dozens of Westerners Board Commercial Flight from Kabul

September 9, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan — Dozens of foreigners, including Americans, boarded a commercial flight at Kabul airport on Thursday in the first large-scale evacuation since U.S and NATO forces left Afghanistan late last month. 

Their departure marked a significant breakthrough in the bumpy coordination between the U.S. and Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers. 

The Taliban have said they would let foreigners and Afghans with valid travel documents leave, but a days-long standoff over charter planes at another airport had cast some doubt on Taliban assurances. Thursday's Qatar Airways flight is heading to Doha.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. The following is AP's previous story.

Afghanistan's Taliban authorities will allow some 200 Westerners, including Americans, to fly out from Kabul in the coming hours, officials said Thursday, marking the airport's first such flight since U.S. forces withdrew from the country.

The large group of foreigners would depart Thursday on a Qatar Airways flight that had earlier ferried humanitarian aid to the country, said Qatari special envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, declaring it a "historic day."

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief the media, provided the number of Westerners expected to board the flight and said that two very senior Taliban official helped facilitate the departure. The 200 includes Americans, green card holders and other nationalities, the official said.

The flight would represent the first to depart from Kabul airport since American forces left the country at the end of August, their departure accompanied by a frantic airlift of tens of thousands of foreign citizens and Afghans fleeing the Taliban. The scenes of chaos, including Afghans plunging to their deaths after clinging to military aircraft that was taking off and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, came to define the fraught end to America's two-decade war.

A foreign diplomat, likewise speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief the media, said another 200 foreigners, including Americans, would depart in the next couple of days. 

The departure of a large group of Americans, a first since the U.S. withdrawal, signals that U.S. officials have come to an arrangement with Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers. 

"Call it what you want, a charter or a commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes," al-Qahtani said from the Kabul airport tarmac, adding that another commercial flight would take off on Friday. "Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan."

But it remains uncertain what the resumption of international flights over the next few days will mean for the tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee Afghanistan's new Taliban leaders over fears of what their rule will hold. Hundreds of other Afghans at risk after the Taliban takeover because of their past work with Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board privately chartered evacuation flights out of the country.

The Taliban have assured the world they will let passengers with valid travel documents leave, but many of those at the northern airport did not have such papers. A stand-off between the Taliban and organizers of several charter planes who had hoped to evacuate the Americans and at-risk Afghans has ensued. 

Following the U.S.-led evacuation of over 100,000 people from the country in the wake of the troop pullout, extensive damage at Kabul airport raised questions over how soon the transport hub could resume for commercial flights. Technical experts from Qatar and Turkey have been working to restore operations. 

Al-Qahtani told reporters that the airport's radar was now active and covering some 70 miles (112 kilometers) after U.S. forces left it inoperable. Authorities were coordinating with Pakistan as they tried to fix the area control for the airspace, he added.

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