Final UK evacuation flight for Afghan nationals has left Kabul, MoD confirms

28 August 2021, 13:36 | Updated: 28 August 2021, 21:18

By Asher McShane

The final UK evacuation flight purely for Afghan nationals has left Kabul, the Ministry of Defence has said.

Any further flights that depart from Kabul before the Western withdrawal on August 31 will now carry British diplomatic and military personnel.

The head of the armed forces, Gen Sir Nick Carter, said it was "heartbreaking" that not everybody had been rescued.

The final UK evacuation flight for Afghan people has left Kabul
The final UK evacuation flight for Afghan people has left Kabul. Picture: Alamy/Twitter

He said hundreds of Afghans eligible to come to the UK remained in Afghanistan. Foreign troops must leave the country by August 31.

Footage circulated online today shows British paratroopers making their way back home to the UK on board one of the final flights. Ride of the Valkyries can be heard playing in the background on board the plane.

The British ambassador to Afghanistan Tweeted today to say it is "time to close this phase" of the Kabul evacuation.

Sir Laurie Bristow, who has stayed in the country to process refugees, posted given a video statement on Twitter.

"The team here have been working until the very last moment to evacuate British nationals, Afghans and others at risk," he said.

"Since the 13th of August, we've brought nearly 15,000 people to safety, and about 1,000 military, diplomatic, civilian personnel have worked on Operation Pitting in Kabul, many, many more elsewhere."

The news comes after the head of the UK armed forces issued a warning that the withdrawal was entering its most dangerous phase.

"We should be holding our breath and thinking really hard of that last aeroplane," said Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter.

Up to 150 British nationals and more than 1,000 Afghans will left behind to face Taliban rule and the threat of Isis-K reprisals.

He said US troops now face a 'very difficult' few days acting as the 'rear guard' to the withdrawal.

"I think our American allies are going to be very challenged because the threat from ISIS-K has not gone away and of course there are still lots of desperate Afghans trying to get out."

He said Operation Pitting - the effort to evacuate UK nationals and eligible Afghans from Kabul airport - had "gone as well as it could do in the circumstances".

"We're reaching the end of the evacuation, which will take place during the course of today. And then of course it'll be necessary to bring our troops out on the remaining aircraft."

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Sir Nick also spoke of the "heartbreaking" judgment calls military personnel had been forced to make.

"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," he said.

"And I think that, you know, people like me, who have had a very, very long association with this country, we are forever receiving messages and texts from our Afghan friends that are very distressing, so we're all living this in the most painful way."

Labour's shadow defence secretary John Healey told Sky News he also expected the operation to wrap up within 24 hours, as flights continued to arrive overnight on Friday and into Saturday morning at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

Mr Healey said: "This is the brutal truth, despite getting more than 14,000 people out, there are probably 1,000 Afghans who have worked with us over two decades in Afghanistan, helped our troops, our aid workers, our diplomats, that we promised to protect, but we're leaving behind.

"And I know those troops in particular will feel our failure on this as a country is a betrayal of many of those who risked their own lives to work alongside us."

The Ministry of Defence said on Friday that once the final civilian evacuations were complete, this would free up space on military flights for diplomats and personnel.

But Tom Tugendhat, a Tory MP who fought in Afghanistan, said he was disappointed the evacuation effort was coming to an end.

The former army officer and now chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said: "I'm extremely sad about this and I very much hope that it might go beyond the August deadline but we found out a few days ago that it wasn't, so I was expecting it.

"It still leaves me extremely sad that so many of my friends have been left behind.

"We're looking at different networks to get people into second countries, and then connecting them to high commissions and ambassadors of the United Kingdom, to get them to the UK safely."

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace previously admitted there were between 800 and 1,100 Afghans eligible under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme who would be left behind, while around 100 and 150 UK nationals will remain in Afghanistan, although Mr Wallace said some of those were staying willingly.

But a number of MPs have said that based on the correspondence they had received asking for help, they thought this was an underestimation.

On Friday, Boris Johnson pledged to "shift heaven and earth" to allow those who wished to leave the country to do so after the August 31 withdrawal deadline set by the Americans.

In the early hours of Saturday, the US military conducted an airstrike against a member of so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan who was believed to be involved in planning attacks against the US in Kabul.

The strike killed one individual, and US spokesman navy captain William Urban said they knew of no civilian casualties.

The MoD said on Friday night that 14,543 people had now been extracted from Kabul since August 13, a mix of Afghan and British nationals.

Some 8,000 of those were Afghans and their families under the Arap scheme, which applies to those who helped the UK and are at risk of persecution by the Taliban.