Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has offered a glimmer of hope for a former Royal Marine seeking to secure the passage of 200 dogs and cats alongside his animal shelter staff out of Afghanistan.
Paul Farthing, known as Pen, founded the Nowzad shelter in Kabul after serving with the British Army in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, with the organisation rescuing dogs, cats and donkeys.
Since the collapse of the Afghan government, he has campaigned to have his staff and their families as well as 140 dogs and 60 cats evacuated from the country in a plan he has dubbed Operation Ark.
On Monday, a jubilant Mr Farthing announced the UK Government had granted visas for all his staff and their dependants – totalling 68 people – but the evacuation of the shelter’s animals has remained a sticking point.
Mr Wallace had insisted the animals would have to wait behind since the UK would prioritise the evacuation of people aboard RAF flights out of Kabul.
Nowzad supporters on Tuesday announced a privately chartered Airbus A330 – funded by donations – was on standby to fly to Kabul to rescue the group’s workers and animals.
But Mr Wallace said this was still not a “magic wand”. Insisting the major problem with evacuations in Kabul has been getting people safely into and through the airport, he said the chartered plane would merely “block the airfield” and “sit there empty” as the processing of the thousands of people trying to leave Kabul would be prioritised over the airlifting of animals.
However, in a series of tweets early on Wednesday, Mr Wallace said if Mr Farthing arrived at the airport with his staff and animals, officials would seek to facilitate their departure aboard the chartered aircraft.
He added if Mr Farthing and his staff chose not to bring the animals they could board an RAF flight, as all had been granted leave outside the immigration rules (LOTR) to fly to the UK.
“Now that Pen Farthing’s staff have been cleared to come forward under LOTR I have authorised MOD to facilitate their processing alongside all other eligible personnel at (Kabul airport). At that stage, if he arrives with his animals we will seek a slot for his plane,” Mr Wallace tweeted.
“If he does not have his animals with him he and his staff can board an RAF flight. I have been consistent all along, ensuring those most at risk are processed first and that the limiting factor has been flow THROUGH to airside NOT airplane capacity.”
Mr Farthing has previously said the animals would be transported in the aircraft’s hold and that once his staff were accommodated any spare seats on the plane could be filled by other people cleared for passage by UK authorities, with the flight able to take 250 passengers in total.
“The cargo hold is empty – we put the dogs and cats in there!! And 250 people above in the cabin!” Mr Farthing tweeted.
Earlier, a Nowzad supporter in the UK, veterinary surgeon Dr Iain McGill, had said people were ready to take in the animals once brought to Britain.
“Pen has got transport for all the staff and animals and himself safely to the airport,” Dr McGill told the PA news agency.
“In the airport they can wait for a few days until the plane arrives, they just need to get safe. Pen doesn’t have that long a window because of the military operation.”
Dr McGill said that after the animals and the charity’s staff, the remaining 130 seats on the plane would be filled with at-risk Afghans.
Earlier, Mr Wallace had suggested Mr Farthing should leave the animals behind and seek to take them out of Afghanistan at a later time. Foreign forces facilitating evacuations appear set to leave the country in a week, with US president Joe Biden on Tuesday refusing to prolong his August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of his troops. Other nations likely to follow America’s lead, leaving the Taliban in full control of the country.
Mr Wallace told Sky News he did not believe the Taliban’s “main point of target” would be Mr Farthing’s staff and animals “compared to some of those other people desperate in front of the queue”.
He said once evacuation efforts were over he believed that if Mr Farthing “wants to repatriate the pets that he looks after and the strays, I genuinely believe that they will be allowed to move forward at a later date when that airport opens”.