Italy creates ‘air bridge’ to evacuate civilians from Afghanistan

Italy evacuated embassy staff and other Italian and Afghan nationals on its first emergency flight from Kabul on Sunday night, the foreign ministry has confirmed.

Italy creates ‘air bridge’ to evacuate civilians from Afghanistan
Afghan security personnel stand guard at the Hamid Karzai Airport on Monday. Photo: Sajjad HUSSAIN/AFP

The KC-767 military transport plane touched down about 13.30 local time at Rome’s Fiumicino international airport, carrying some 50 diplomats and 20 Afghans who had worked with Italian forces in Afghanistan, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Their arrival came after a last-minute evacuation on Sunday at Kabul’s airport, as Western powers scrambled to fly out their remaining embassy staff and Afghans who worked as interpreters or other support roles.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in an interview on Rai Radio 1 on Monday morning that “other compatriots who were in Afghanistan and who responded to the call of the Foreign Ministry to return to Italy” were also on the first evacuation flight.

“This is the first of the flights that will take off from Kabul to Italy to repatriate citizens in the next few days”, Di Maio said.

The ministry had urged Italian nationals to leave the country over the weekend following the Taliban’s advance into the Afghan capital.

At a security committee meeting held in Palermo on Sunday, Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said reports “indicate the Taliban will not take immediate action. This should allow time to ensure the departure of Italian nationals and of those who have cooperated with the armed forces, such as doctors, interpreters.”

READ ALSO: German forces to help evacuate people from Afghanistan

Following the arrival of the evacuation flight on Monday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s office tweeted that “Italy’s commitment is to protect the Afghan citizens who have collaborated with our mission”.

The announcements came after Washington announced on Thursday that it was sending thousands of troops to Kabul to evacuate diplomats and other nationals.

Di Maio had said in an interview with newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on Saturday that “the priority is to secure our compatriots”, adding that “we cannot think of abandoning the Afghan people after 20 years”.

In June, Italy repatriated its remaining approximately 900 soldiers as part of the accelerated withdrawal of NATO forces.

The country was one of the most committed Western powers in Afghanistan, which since 2015 alongside the United States, Turkey, Britain and Germany, formed the bulk of NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission to train and advise Afghan troops.

Italy deployed 50,000 troops in Afghanistan over the past 20 years following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

During that period, 53 Italian soldiers died and 723 were injured.

According to the defence ministry, 228 Afghans who have worked for Italy and their families are already in Italy.

The Taliban takeover after President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday concluded a lightning offensive that overran a string of regional capitals in just over a week following NATO’s withdrawal.

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Spain starts evacuating Afghan employees via Pakistan

Spain was on Monday evacuating via Pakistan Afghan helpers left behind when western forces quit Kabul, a government source confirmed on condition of anonymity.

A group of Afghan nationals stand on the tarmac after disembarking from the last Spanish evacuation flight at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base near Madrid in August. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
A group of Afghan nationals stand on the tarmac after disembarking from the last Spanish evacuation flight at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base near Madrid in August. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

The government source declined to give any details of the move, citing security concerns.

But Spanish media, including daily El País and National Radio, reported that Madrid would bring close to 250 Afghan citizens, who had already crossed into Pakistan and would be flown out on military transport planes.

The first flight was expected to arrive on Monday evening.

Spain’s evacuations have been weeks in the making, with Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares visiting Pakistan and Qatar in early September to lay the groundwork.

Madrid evacuated over 2,000 people, most of them Afghans who had worked for Spain and their families, during the western withdrawal as the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August.

But the flights had to stop once the final American troops that had been protecting the Afghan capital’s airport left.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in August that Spain would not “lose interest in the Afghans who had remained” in their country but wanted to leave.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, on Friday urged the bloc’s member states to host a “minimum” of between 10,000 and 20,000 more Afghan refugees.

“To welcome them, we have to evacuate them, and we’re getting down to it, but it’s not easy,” he said in Madrid.

The EU has said a demand by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to take in 42,500 Afghan refugees over five years can be achieved — although any decision lies with member states.