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First flight carrying passengers leaves Kabul since US pullout

An international flight carrying passengers, including Americans, has flown out of Kabul airport for the first time since the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan 10 days ago.

A US official confirmed that Americans were on board a Qatar Airways flight, which took off on Thursday after Qatar and Turkey reached an agreement with the Taliban to help provide security at Kabul airport.

It is not known who was on board but one person briefed on the talks between Qatar, Turkey and the Taliban expected there were about 200 people on the flight. British officials confirmed that about a dozen British nationals were on the flight.

“We don’t think [these flights] will be regular yet, but we’re working towards that,” the person said. “We have an agreement on security in terms of making sure it’s safe, but we are still trying to iron out everything.”

The US state department will release the number of Americans on the flight later on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The National Security Council confirmed later on Thursday that the flight had landed safely in Qatar, saying the US government had facilitated the departure of US citizens and lawful permanent residents on the chartered flight from Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“This is a positive first step,” said Emily Horne, an NSC spokesperson. The Taliban “have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort,” she added.

The Biden administration has promised remaining US citizens can leave the country, without setting any deadline. Horne said the US would not share further details of evacuation efforts for Americans and eligible Afghans “because there is an ongoing threat to operations of this nature”.

Mutlaq al-Qahtani, Qatar’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told reporters that Kabul airport was about 90 per cent ready for operations, but added that its reopening was “planned gradually”.

“This is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan as Kabul airport is fully operational,” Qahtani was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded television network. “We have been faced by huge challenges . . . but we can now say that the airport is fit for navigation”.

The person briefed on the discussions between Qatar, Turkey and the Taliban said Doha hoped to operate a second flight on Friday.

Passengers inside Kabul airport before boarding the Qatar Airways flight © AFP via Getty Images

The reopening of the airport has been considered an urgent priority for western and regional powers due to fears that thousands of Afghans vulnerable to reprisals from the Taliban would be stranded.

US officials have argued that the Taliban must abide by its commitments to let Americans leave the country if it is to have any hope of securing international support.

The resumption of international flights is also deemed critical for flying in much-needed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power last month and the Afghan government collapsed.

Qatar, which hosts a Taliban political office in Doha and has become the main facilitator of engagement between the Islamist movement and western powers, dispatched a technical team to help reopen the airport last week.

The main concern has been how to ensure that security in and around the airport is safely managed to prevent extremists attacking the transport hub or accessing flights. During the last days of the US pullout, jihadi group Isis-K claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed at least 170 people, including 13 American troops.

The flights on Thursday were taking place as Taliban fighters on high alert patrolled Kabul and other cities after the new government banned unauthorised protests. The Islamist movement, which announced an interim government on Tuesday, imposed the ban late on Wednesday after days of demonstrations by Afghan women and opposition supporters.

The interior ministry said protesters would need government permission and have to share their plans and even slogans with authorities in advance. “Violators will face severe legal action,” it said.

It was one of the first acts by Afghanistan’s new Taliban government as it cemented its control over the country following the US withdrawal last month. The move dismayed critics who said the Taliban was erasing basic rights and reinstating repressive practice. There had been hope that the Islamists might prove more moderate than when they first ran Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban on Tuesday unveiled a caretaker cabinet dominated by hardliners and ideologues, including members facing UN sanctions or on the FBI’s most wanted list, ignoring western calls for a diverse government that included women and non-Taliban leaders.

Afghanistan has faced a wave of protest across the country this week, many led by women demanding rights and representation in the all-male government. A number of women protesters were beaten by Taliban fighters, according to the BBC.

The Taliban had previously said that women’s rights would be respected as per Islamic law. But the UN and others have warned that local Taliban leaders in some provinces are banning them from work and education, as it did across the country in the 1990s.

A number of journalists covering a demonstration by Afghan women in Kabul on Wednesday were arrested and beaten by Taliban fighters before being released, according to their accounts and social media images.

Foreign leaders and diplomats had argued that the Taliban could prove more moderate this time, which would help pave the way for the resumption of aid and security co-operation. But those hopes are fast fading.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, on Wednesday said the international community was “concerned” by the Taliban’s new cabinet.

The interior ministry which has banned protests is now led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior member of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network that has historic ties to al-Qaeda. The US has designated it a terrorist group and Sirajuddin Haqqani is on the FBI’s most wanted list with a $10m bounty.

Additional reporting by Fazelminallah Qazizai in Kabul

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