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UK officials vow to ‘scale up the speed’ of Afghanistan evacuation

Chaos at the airport in Kabul
Chaos at the airport in Kabul

UK officials have pledged to “scale up” and accelerate the urgent evacuation of British nationals and Afghans from Kabul over the next two days.

Sir Laurie Bristow, the ambassador to Afghanistan, said they were able to get 700 people out on Tuesday and were now “putting everything we can” into helping others.

Shots were fired near the airport in the Afghan capital on Wednesday amid chaotic scenes as various nations scrambled to evacuate their citizens and employees.

At home, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced criticism from MPs over the government’s handling of the crisis, as parliament was recalled in the wake of the Taliban takeover.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, called on the Westminster government to take in more refugees from Afghanistan than was promised on Tuesday.

On social media, she said: “While the announcement of a UK resettlement scheme for Afghan refugees is welcome in principle, the commitment to 20,000 in ‘long term’ and just 5,000 this year is woefully inadequate.

“I call on UK Government to go further to meet its responsibilities. The Scottish Government is ready to play full part.”

Sir Laurie posted a video on social media outlining the work UK officials were carrying out to try to get as many people to safety as possible.

“We’re putting everything we can into getting British nationals, and Afghans who have worked with us in the past, out of Afghanistan and to safety,” he said.

“So yesterday we got about 700 people out. We’re trying to scale up the speed, the pace, over the next couple of days.

“We’re putting everything we can on this over the next few days, trying to get out everyone that we need to get to safety, as soon as we can.”

Sir Laurie has relocated from the embassy in Kabul to an emergency handling centre set up in the capital’s airport to process the applications of those seeking to leave for the UK.

Operation Pitting is supported by 600 British troops – including Paras from 16 Air Assault Brigade – as well as a small number of additional Home Office staff.

We’re working on the basis of days, not weeks, so we really do have to get those numbers through.”

Sir Laurie told Sky News: “We had to take decisions about who stayed in very difficult circumstances at speed as the situation unravelled.

“It is my choice to stay here. All of my staff here are volunteers and I pay tribute to them for that.

“We’re working very closely with our military colleagues and with others across government to get through the workload, to get the people that we need to get out of here to safety.

“How long have we got? It really depends on other things outside of our control – the security situation, the approach of the Taliban.

“We’re working on the basis of days, not weeks, so we really do have to get those numbers through.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during the debate on the situation in Afghanistan in the House of Commons

Earlier, Mr Johnson told MPs the UK Government had so far secured the safe return of 306 British nationals and 2,052 Afghans, with a further 2,000 Afghan applications completed and many more being processed.

While the Taliban was allowing the evacuation to continue for now, he said it was unclear how long that would remain the case.

“The situation has stabilised since the weekend but it remains precarious, and the UK officials on the ground are doing everything that they can to expedite the movement of people,” he said

“The most important thing is that we get this done in as expeditious a fashion as we can and that is what we are doing.”

The head of the armed forces, General Sir Nick Carter, said they were working with the Taliban to ensure people could leave but warned there were “a lot of challenges on the ground”.

He said he expected seven aircraft to head to Kabul, enabling another 1,000 people to leave on Wednesday.

Members of Joint Forces Headquarters (JFHQ) deploying to Afghanistan to assist in the draw down of troops

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are a lot of desperate people trying to get to the airport, and subject to the situation remaining calm, which the Taliban are working hard to achieve alongside us, the system will work, we believe.

“At the moment we are collaborating with the Taliban on the ground, who are providing security.

“They are making sure that the centre of Kabul is very calm at the moment and so far we have not had reports of people finding it difficult to get to the airport.”

On Wednesday, the US State Department released a joint statement signed by about two dozen nations expressing concern for the rights of Afghan women and girls and urging those in power in Afghanistan to “guarantee their protection”.

In Afghanistan, it was reported that the Taliban violently broke up a protest in the east of the country , killing at least one person as they quashed a rare public show of dissent.

Taliban fighters are seen on the back of a vehicle. Kabul, Afghanistan.

Dozens of people gathered in the eastern city of Jalalabad to raise the national flag a day before Afghanistan’s Independence Day, which commemorates the end of British rule in 1919.

They lowered the Taliban flag, a white banner with an Islamic inscription, that the militants have raised in the areas they captured.

Video footage later showed the Taliban firing into the air and attacking people with batons to disperse the crowd.

Babrak Amirzada, a reporter for a local news agency, said he and a TV cameraman from another agency were beaten by the Taliban as they tried to cover the unrest.

A local health official said at least one person was killed and six wounded.

Meanwhile, videos from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias that allied with the US against the Taliban in 2001, appear to show potential opposition figures gathering there.

It is in the only province that has not yet fallen to the Taliban.

Afghan displaced children who fled from their homes during the fights take shelter in a public park in Kabul

Those figures include members of the deposed government, vice president Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he is the country’s rightful president and defence minister General Bismillah Mohammadi, as well as Ahmad Massoud, the son of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

It was unclear if they intended to challenge to the Taliban, who seized most of the country in a matter of days last week.

The Taliban, meanwhile, pressed ahead with their efforts to form an “inclusive, Islamic government”.

They have been holding talks with former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government.

Mohammad Yusof Saha, a spokesman for Mr Karzai, said preliminary meetings with Taliban officials would facilitate eventual negotiations with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top Taliban political leader, who returned to the country this week.

Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah met on Wednesday with Anas Haqqani, a senior leader in a powerful Taliban faction.

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