LONDON (AP) — Britain ended evacuation flights from Kabul airport on Saturday and began bringing troops home, even as the United Kingdom’s top military officer acknowledged “we haven’t been able to bring everybody out.”
Britain’s defense ministry said that the final flight for Afghan citizens had left Kabul and further flights over the weekend will bring home British troops and diplomats, though they may also carry a few remaining UK or Afghan civilians.
Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, said from Kabul airport that it was “time to close this phase of the operation now.”
“But we haven’t forgotten the people who still need to leave,” Bristow said in a video posted on Twitter. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to help them. Nor have we forgotten the brave, decent people of Afghanistan. They deserve to live in peace and security.”
A Royal Air Force plane carrying UK diplomatic staff and soldiers landed at the RAF Brize Norton airbase northwest of London early Saturday morning. The troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade were part of a contingent of 1,000 British soldiers who have been based in Kabul to help run the airlift.
Britain says that it has evacuated more than 14,500 people from Kabul in the past two weeks, but that as many as 1,100 Afghans who were entitled to come to the UK have been left behind. Some British lawmakers who have been trying to help stranded constituents and their families believe the true total is higher.
“We haven’t been able to bring everybody out, and that has been heartbreaking, and there have been some very challenging judgments that have had to be made on the ground,” the head of British armed forces, Gen. Nick Carter, told the BBC.
Foreign citizens from around the world and the Afghans who worked with them have sought to leave the country since the Taliban’s swift takeover this month after most United States forces departed. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated through Kabul airport, according to American officials.
The desperate, chaotic exodus turned deadly on Thursday, when a suicide bomber struck crowds gathered near the Kabul airport. The attack killed 169 Afghans, according to a preliminary count, and 13 American troops. Two British citizens and the child of another Briton also were among the people killed.
In London, Afghans came to the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association advice center, desperate for news of friends and relatives.
Saraj Deen Safi said that he had been unable to make contact with relatives who were near Kabul airport since Thursday’s bomb attack. He said that he hoped they would be able to reach a safe European country, but he felt “despaired” at the lack of news.
While the UK has evacuated thousands of former interpreters and others who worked with British forces, the advice program coordinator for the London association, Shabnam Nasimi, said that she was “devastated” for many others.
“There are many others who indirectly supported our work there to bring about democracy and free speech and a much better society for Afghanistan,” Nasimi said. “And the fact we haven’t recognized that and now abandoned those people. And these include journalists and judges, for instance, who are directly going to be targeted by the Taliban.”
“The future of these individuals is very bleak,” she said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised on Friday to “shift heaven and earth” to get more people from Afghanistan to Britain by other means, though no concrete details have been offered.
UK officials hope some people may be able to leave Afghanistan overland for neighboring countries, where their claims to come to the UK could be processed. That will depend on diplomatic coordination and cooperation — not least from the Taliban.