UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has said that Afghans hoping to flee their country might want to aim to escape across the country’s borders rather than try getting on a rescue flight from Kabul’s airport, according to British media reports.
Nearly 90,000 Afghans and foreigners have fled Afghanistan via the US-led airlift since the hardline Islamist Taliban movement took control of the country on August 15.
Huge crowds are gathered in and around the airport, becoming increasingly desperate as some foreign nations cease flights ahead of an August 31 deadline by US President Joe Biden to end the evacuations and withdraw the US troops overseeing it.
During an online meeting Wednesday with MPs, Wallace was asked what Afghans who have been offered study or fellowship opportunities in the UK should do.
“If they think they can make it to a third country, that may be a better option,” he said, according to a report from The Guardian.
“I recommend that they try and make it to the border,” Wallace advised and noted that “it is higher profile going to the airport – that is where the Taliban will be focusing their efforts at the moment.”
There was no suggestion that Afghans who have already been told to head to Kabul airport for evacuation on a rescue flight should change their plans, according to the report.
Defense sources told The Guardian that Wallace’s advice of seeking refuge in a third country was “not a message of despair” and that such plans of action would remain an option for as long as is needed for translators and others who need to be resettled.
Landlocked Afghanistan is bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China.
UK rescue efforts are currently focusing on interpreters and others who worked for Britain and qualify for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).
Wallace told the MPs there are around 1,500 people still in Afghanistan who are eligible for the plan.
According to the report the Foreign Office also has a list of “special cases” that include human rights activists, judges, LGBTQ+ supporters and others who want to get out.
Wallace did not say when exactly the last UK evacuation flight will take place. There is speculation it could be Thursday, according to the report.
“What we don’t want to do is trigger a surge or a stampede and we’ve already seen a number of people killed,” Wallace told the meeting. “I can’t give you an exact time. It isn’t long, it is a really difficult position we’re in.”
Wallace also publicly conceded that “we’re not going to get everybody out of the country” before the US-led mission ends on August 31.
Britain and other allies are pressing Biden to extend the evacuation past the end-of-the-month date agreed with the Taliban. But Wallace told Sky News it’s unlikely Biden will agree.
Western nations warned their citizens Thursday to immediately leave the surrounds of Kabul airport over a terrorist threat, as thousands of people try to reach the dwindling number of evacuation flights.
London issued a warning, saying “if you can leave Afghanistan safely by other means, you should do so immediately.”
Britain says it has evacuated 8,600 UK citizens and Afghans from Kabul in recent days, 2,000 of them in the last 24 hours.