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Striking photo shows 640 desperate people fleeing Kabul crammed in US army plane

Hundreds of panicked Afghans pulled themselves up through the C-17’s half-open ramp, and ‘the crew made the decision to go’

Some 640 passengers crammed into Reach 871, a US Air Force C-17 that flew from Kabul Airport to Qatar on August 15. (Courtesy: Defense One)
Some 640 passengers crammed into Reach 871, a US Air Force C-17 that flew from Kabul Airport to Qatar on August 15. (Courtesy: Defense One)

A US Air Force cargo plane carried a staggering 640 passengers to safety from amid the chaos at Kabul airport on Sunday, a photograph obtained by the Defense One website shows.

The plane had reportedly been intended to evacuate US embassy personnel fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

But hundreds of “panicked Afghans who had been cleared to evacuate pulled themselves onto the C-17’s half-open ramp,” according to a US defense official quoted by Defense One.

Rather than attempting to force them off, “the crew made the decision to go,” the official said. “Approximately 640 Afghan civilians disembarked the aircraft when it arrived at its destination.”

The Afghans on the C-17, which used the callsign Reach 871, were flown from Kabul to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

They were seated on the floor of the vast hold in a procedure called “floor loading,” the website said, whereby “passengers hang onto cargo straps run from wall to wall serving as makeshift seatbelts.”

The full uncropped photo showing some 640 passengers crammed into Reach 871, a US Air Force C-17 that flew from Kabul Airport to Qatar on August 15. (Courtesy: Defense One)

The 640 figure is among the largest number of passengers ever carried on the C-17 Globemaster III, a military transport aircraft that has been operated by the US and its allies for some 30 years, and which is reportedly designed to carry some 150 soldiers in comfort and 171,000 pounds of cargo. Defense One said other planes that took off from Kabul on Sunday may have had even larger numbers on board.

(In Israel’s 36-hour Operation Solomon airlift of over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in 1991, one El Al 747 carried a world-record 1,000-plus passengers. The Guinness Book of Records put the figure at 1,088, including two babies born en route to Ben Gurion Airport.)

US President Joe Biden on Monday defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan but acknowledged that the Afghan government’s collapse was quicker than anticipated.

Biden described the images coming out of Afghanistan — especially at Kabul airport where huge crowds of Afghans descended in hopes of fleeing the country, and several were killed — as “gut-wrenching.”

But the president blamed Afghanistan’s political leaders and its military for the rapid Taliban takeover. “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, while the military, trained by the US for 20 years and provided with equipment worth billions, laid down its arms.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged that “all Afghan nationals and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so safely,” adding that the US promised “to be generous in resettling Afghans.”

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