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The UK plans to fly up to 1,500 people out of Kabul a day after the Taliban advance on the city sparked desperate scenes at the airport as Afghans who worked with Nato or the government tried to leave.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK government was processing applications “as fast as we can” to help move hundreds of desperate Afghans, including translators and other embassy support staff, to safety.
“Right up until the day before yesterday, the Afghans wouldn’t let Afghans leave without their passport. If they’ve already been through our checks, we know who they are,” he told Sky News on Monday.
France and Germany have both begun evacuation missions.
“We need to see if we can adapt the rules to get those people out as soon as we can and we will cycle them out from Afghanistan to a Middle East country and then back to United Kingdom, so we can keep the flow of aeroplanes in and out," Mr Wallace said.
“Our target is at least 1,200 to 1,500 exits per day using the capacity of our aeroplanes, and we’ll keep that flowing. We’ve secured a place within the airport where we can process people securely and then marshal them on to the plane.”
Mr Wallace said he was surprised by the speed at which the security situation deteriorated in Afghanistan.
He said he had hoped that years of investment in the country’s military would have allowed for a more “transitional process” as foreign forces withdrew.
About 700 British troops, including paratroopers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, remained in the country to oversee the departure of administrative staff and other embassy workers, he said.
Mr Wallace had previously indicated they could be there until the end of the month, but given the speed of the collapse that now appears unlikely.
“The reason our soldiers are there right now is purely to process both the Afghans that we have obligations to, and indeed to other UK passport holders, people who are aid workers or people who have worked with journalists, so that’s why we will carry on that as long as we can,” he told the BBC.
Since April, the British authorities have managed to fly more than 2,000 Afghans out of the country and they are now safely in the UK with their families.
About 4,000 UK citizens and Afghans eligible to move to the UK are believed to still be in Afghanistan.
Mr Wallace appeared emotional as he told LBC that “some people will not get back”.
There were chaotic scenes at Kabul airport on Monday as hundreds of people gathered on the runway as they tried to secure a flight out of the country.
There were reports that US troops fired several warning shots to keep some civilians away from American aircraft.
The Pentagon confirmed it was preparing to help up to 22,000 special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants get to the US over the next week or so.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said they would initially be accommodated at two US bases, in addition to Fort Lee in Virginia.
He added that the US was prepared to offer medical assistance to thousands more Afghans outside of the US.
"A battalion-sized unit already in the Central Command area of responsibility is prepared to also assist with processing and medical care for up to 8,000 at-risk individuals there," Mr Kirby said.
The US has already relocated about 2,000 SIV-holding Afghans through Operation Allies Refuge.
"We know that there are other vulnerable Afghans, some for the work they have done, some for the things they have said, some for nothing more than their gender and we are also working and planning to bring as many as we can to safety," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
An additional 1,600 individuals had been airlifted out of the country in the last few days, he added.
France has launched Operation Apagan by sending two planes this week.
“We are doing everything we can to facilitate the arrival in France of those who are willing and able to reach Kabul airport,” French defence minister Florence Parly said.
A German military transport plane set off for Kabul on Monday.
Berlin’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said the security of the Germans in Afghanistan and local partners “is paramount”.
But last week, the German Parliament rejected a motion recommending translators and “local Afghan staff were welcomed generously” into the country.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to take in 20,000 refugees as well as hundreds of Afghans who worked with the Canadian military and embassy over the years.
However, the Canadian government announced it had suspended its "diplomatic mission" in Kabul. Canada's Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Immigration and National Defence released a joint statement late Sunday.
“The Government of Canada, including the Canadian Armed Forces, is working closely with allies, including the United States, to ensure processing capacity for the ongoing Special Immigration Measures programme," the Ministers said.
But some in Canada say the government is not doing enough.
"This is a humanitarian crisis right now," said Retired Major-General David Fraser who led Nato's efforts in Afghanistan's south in 2006.
"You've just announced that you're going to bring 20,000 people in, what's the plan? We don't need to know the details for each file. But what's the plan for getting them out?"
Australia has similarly committed to bring Afghans who worked with the country's military and at its embassy to safety. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government was working to bring 130 Australians working in Afghanistan home.
On Sunday, it was reported that the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, was in a secure area of Kabul airport with other international diplomats.
But plans were being hastily made to move him and other personnel out of the airport, emphasising speed of the collapse.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to recall parliament this week owing to the crisis that Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat called “the biggest single foreign policy disaster” since the Suez crisis in 1956.
Mr Tugendhat, who served as an army officer in Afghanistan, had said the priority should be to get as many people out before Kabul collapsed.
“This isn’t just about interpreters or guards. This is about those people who we trained in special forces to serve alongside us, those who helped us to understand the territory through our agencies and our diplomats,” he told BBC News on Sunday.
“These are the people who, on our encouragement, set up schools for girls. These people are all at risk now.
“The real danger is that we are going to see every female MP murdered, we are going to see ministers strung up on street lamps.”