Aug. 20 (UPI) — U.S. flights out of Kabul to evacuate Afghans fleeing the Taliban were on pause for several hours Friday after Qatar said it was at capacity and refused to accept more evacuees, the White House said.
In an update briefing on Friday afternoon, U.S. President Joe Biden said the pause was done to “make sure we could process the arriving evacuees at the transit points.”
“This is one of the largest, most difficult air lifts in history, and the only country in the world capable of projecting this much power on the far side of the world with this degree of precision is the United States of America,” he said.
Among those evacuated, he said, were more than 200 employees of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
An unnamed White House official told CNN the pause was expected to be lifted as the government evaluates possible new locations to relocate Afghans. CBS News reported that Bahrain was expected to begin accepting evacuees Friday after making an air base available.
Colombia, meanwhile, will temporarily house Afghans as they wait to be approved to travel to the United States, Colombian Ambassador to the United States Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno tweeted. He said the U.S. government will be assuming all costs of the effort.
One soldier said some 10,000 were processed and ready to leave from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, but there was nowhere for them to go.
Earlier Friday, the White House said a few thousand U.S. workers, Afghan aides and civilians had been evacuated on Thursday and nearly a dozen charter flights took even more out of the country.
A White House official said U.S. forces evacuated about 3,000 people from Kabul on more than a dozen C-17 transport planes. The total included hundreds of U.S. citizens, special international visa applicants and their families and vulnerable Afghans.
“Additionally, in the last 24 hours, the U.S. military facilitated the departure of 11 charter flights,” the official said.
“We have evacuated approximately 9,000 people since Aug. 14. Since the end of July, we have evacuated approximately 14,000 people.”
The new evacuations came four days after the Taliban overtook Kabul and seized control of the Afghan government. The militant group had been on a lightning sweep throughout Afghanistan, taking over almost all provincial capitals nationwide as American forces withdrew and returned to the United States.
In recent days, there have been reports of deadly clashes between the Taliban and civilian demonstrators who oppose their rule. During their last reign in the 1990s, the Taliban forced women and girls to live by a strict set of Islamic rules and many fear the group will return to such suppressive control.
Biden has defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces by the end of this month. In light of the swift Taliban takeover, however, he’s said that a contingent of U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until all U.S. citizens are out. He also said everything will be done to help Afghan aides and their families.
A number of people have died during the chaos in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over on Sunday. Several died on the first day attempting to board U.S. military flights out of the country. Some even clutched onto the planes as they took off. The remains of one Afghan civilian were found in the wheel well of one of the planes when it landed in Qatar.
One of Afghanistan’s top young soccer players, Mohammad Zaki Anwari, was among the dead at the Kabul airport. Officials said he was clutching onto the wing of one of the evacuation planes when it departed.
Anwari, 19, and others went to the airport on Sunday when the Taliban entered Kabul.
“He was also a brilliant student and his dream was to be a world-class footballer and he dreamed of making Afghanistan a big name on the world stage,” teammate Rahil Abid told CBS News. “I wasn’t able to see his body or able to go to his funeral because of the current situation in Kabul, but apparently he is one of the Afghans who fell from the plane’s wing or tires after takeoff.”
Other civilians died this week during clashes with the Taliban when the group tried to shut down protests, including two in Jalalabad and Asadabad.
Taliban fighters have been patrolling across Kabul and in other provinces, mainly as a show of force and to quell any potential uprisings.
“We are united in our deep concern about the grave events in Afghanistan and call for an immediate end to the violence,” NATO said in a statement Friday.
“Our immediate task is now to meet our commitments to continue the safe evacuation of our citizens, partner country nationals, and at-risk Afghans, in particular those who have assisted our efforts.
“We will not allow any terrorists to threaten us.”
German news outlet Deutsche Welle reported Thursday that Taliban fighters killed a reporter’s relative during a house-to-house search. Another person was injured.
“The killing of a close relative of one of our editors by the Taliban yesterday is inconceivably tragic and testifies to the acute danger in which all our employees and their families in Afghanistan find themselves,” Deutsche Welle Director General Peter Limbourg said.
“It is evident that the Taliban are already carrying out organized searches for journalists, both in Kabul and in the provinces. We are running.”
The Taliban in the past have cracked down on journalists they view as critical of Islam and severely restricted press freedoms in Afghanistan. They said at a news conference on Tuesday that they will allow a free press in Afghanistan. They also said women will be allowed to work and study and there will be no reprisals against former enemies.
Experts have been skeptical of the Taliban’s promises.
“There is little evidence to suggest the insurgents have changed their hard-line views in their 20 years of opposition,” Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said, according to Voice of America.