Afghanistan evacuation mission begins as New Zealand military plane jets off for Kabul

A military plane on a mercy dash to Kabul to rescue New Zealanders, interpreters and others who worked with Kiwi troops fighting the Taliban has left this morning.

And it’s been confirmed that the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130 Hercules aircraft, which flew out of RNZAF Base Auckland today, will touch down at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The emergency evacuation contingent amounts to around 80 people, including aircrew and maintenance staff, a medical team, operational support staff, logistics personnel and force protection. The NZDF would not confirm whether any special forces operatives were on board.

The deployment could last for up to a month.

It comes after the Taliban’s stunning rapid victory in taking control over the war-torn country after the departure of foreign troops, including from New Zealand, the US and other Nato allies, over the past few weeks and months.

As disturbing images came in from Kabul airport, where thousands of desperate Afghans tried to flee, clutching to the outsides of moving planes, the New Zealand Government made the urgent decision to send help.

Government officials have been contacting individuals stuck in Afghanistan and making arrangements to try to get them out.

This afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she’s been advised today that the security situation in Kabul is “incredibly difficult”.

“People are struggling to get to Kabul airport,” she said.

“We need to be prepared for how hard this mission will be and how difficult it will be to evacuate those who we are seeking to help.

“Our thoughts are with our Defence Force team as they enter in this deployment – I know you will do what you can.”

Commander Joint Forces NZ, Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour told the Herald this morning that the aircraft is heading to an undisclosed air base in the Middle East and will “take a couple of days to get there”.

“It’s a long haul for a Hercules so I expect the aircraft to arrive in three days.

“The intent is to be available to move New Zealanders and approved foreign nationals from Kabul to a place of safe haven for them to marry-up with a long-haul option to get them back to New Zealand.”

He confirmed that it’s expected the aircraft will at some point touch down at Kabul airport – and they’re paying close attention to the security situation.

But he didn’t think any of NZDF personnel would be leaving the airport after landing.

“I believe, at this stage, that would be beyond our risk profile,” Gilmour said.

Partner nations including the US have taken over inside the airport and regained control from the chaotic scenes of Sunday and Monday.

The Taliban is controlling outside the airport, with many checkpoints and armed patrols.

“We wouldn’t call it predictable or pleasant, in terms of security at this point, but it has improved over the past couple of days for various reasons,” Gilmour said.

Gilmour expects some agreement would be made with the Taliban, through either direct New Zealand relations, or perhaps through an agreement between partner nations and the Taliban, for a safe passage of people through the cordons.

He’s been speaking with counterparts in Australia, who yesterday made their first touchdown in Kabul for an evacuation mission, and they will be working together over the coming weeks.

Air Component Commander Air Commodore Shaun Sexton expected to be flying into Afghanistan “from next week”.

It’s expected that the C-130 aircraft could take a maximum of 100 people at a time.

Gilmour says the NZDF personnel going on the mission understand not just the importance of the mission, but also the potential dangers involved.

Minister of Defence Peeni Henare said New Zealand has had a long-standing relationship with the people of Afghanistan, particularly in Bamiyan Province, where Kiwis were based for two decades, and eight New Zealand lives were lost. It fell to the Taliban over the weekend.

“Because of this, we are joining our partners in assisting with the evacuation of those who are in the greatest danger,” Henare said.

“We will be working alongside partner militaries, such as our ally Australia, as we respond to this rapidly evolving humanitarian situation.”

It will mean that some individuals bound for New Zealand might return on Australian, or other allies’ planes, and vice versa Henare said, as “partners look to co-operate wherever they can to safely expedite the evacuation”.

With the Taliban controlling checkpoints in and out of Kabul airport, it’s not yet clear if there will be a safe passage provided to the civilians who used to work with Kiwi forces.

Some have told the Herald they fear deadly reprisals from the Taliban for their ties with foreign troops.

Others worry that their cases are being rejected or ignored and will be left to fend for themselves.

Cabinet provided an exemption for the C-130 Hercules flight when considering Covid-19 alert level changes.

All deploying personnel have been vaccinated, and protections will be in place throughout the mission, including the use of PPE.

“The safety of our people is of the utmost importance during this unfolding situation,” Henare said.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has co-signed a joint statement on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan.

“We are deeply worried about Afghan women and girls, their rights to education, work and freedom of movement,” says the statement which has also been signed by Albania, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, European Union, Honduras, Guatemala, North Macedonia, Norway, Paraguay, Senegal, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States of America.

“We call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee their protection.

“Afghan women and girls, as all Afghan people, deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented. We in the international community stand ready to assist them with humanitarian aid and support, to ensure that their voices can be heard.”

It closes by saying: “We will monitor closely how any future government ensures rights and freedoms that have become an integral part of the life of women and girls in Afghanistan during the past 20 years.”

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