Air India to operate flights till Kabul airport remains functional: Indian envoy
Some Indian citizens are still in Afghanistan and Air India will continue operating flights from Kabul as long as the airport there remains functional, Indian envoy Rudrendra Tandon said on Tuesday after his evacuation with other diplomatic staff.
India decided to withdraw the ambassador and all other staff from the mission in Kabul – effectively closing the embassy for the second time since 1996 – due to the uncertainty created by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government on Sunday.
Close to 200 Indian officials and security personnel were flown out of Kabul in two groups on two C-17 military heavy lift aircraft on Monday and Tuesday, with the flights being conducted in secrecy amid the chaotic occupation of Kabul by the Taliban. On Monday, the second group of officials faced problems in getting to the airport from the embassy – a distance of about 10 km – because of checkpoints set up by the Taliban.
“We are continuously monitoring the situation because there are still some Indian citizens who are there. That is why Air India will continue to run its commercial services to Kabul as long as the airport in Kabul functions,” Tandon told reporters during a brief interaction at the airbase in Jamnagar, Gujarat, where the C-17 landed en route to Hindon airbase.
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The envoy said Air India had temporarily suspended its flights to Kabul because of the conditions at the airport. “However, we continue to ensure that anyone who is stuck there is somehow brought [back], for which the [external affairs ministry] has opened a help desk that is operating already,” he said.
He added, “As you know, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan no longer exists and the situation is quite fluid now.”
Asked about the number of Indian nationals who are still in Afghanistan, Tandon said it would be difficult to give an exact figure as Indians didn’t always register themselves with the embassy in Kabul despite advisories.
“There are some individuals there...I know personally of at least five or six but the figures sometimes that are quoted to us is there could be 40 to 50. But that is not something that I will stand by officially because we don’t have it as registered persons on our database,” he said.
Tandon said the Indian side will continue to remain in contact with the Afghan people despite the withdrawal of the diplomatic staff. “It’s not that we have abandoned the people of Afghanistan, their welfare and our relationship with them is very much on our minds. We will try and continue our interaction with them [but] I can’t say in what form as the situation is changing,” he said.
The envoy spoke hours after the Indian government introduced a new e-visa category that Afghan nationals, irrespective of religion, could apply for online. After a thorough security vetting, Afghans who qualify are expected to be granted a six-month visa.
Tandon also said the Indian personnel were “very happy that it’s finally over and we’re back home safely, securely, without any accidents or harm to any of our people”.
India had a large mission with 192 personnel in Kabul, and everyone was evacuated “literally within three days in a very orderly fashion in two phases”, he said. Among those brought back on Tuesday were employees of public sector companies such as Air India.
“There are a lot of Indian citizens who found themselves in distress because of the fast-changing situation. So, our policy was that anyone who reached the embassy was taken into the embassy. I don’t know how they managed inside the embassy but we were sure that they were safe and secure and there was an avenue for an exit,” he said.
“This would not have been possible without the work of the full embassy, different wings did different jobs. Some of the jobs I can’t even mention, but it all came together and we are finally here safe and secure,” Tandon added.