THE number of Irish people now in need of evacuation from Afghanistan has risen to 33, amid “chaotic scenes” in Kabul Airport, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has revealed.
Mr Coveney said his department was working with other EU countries, the UK and the US to ensure the safe passage of the Irish citizens out of Afghanistan.
“The number of Irish citizens looking to leave Afghanistan has increased slightly over the last 24 hours, it’s now 33 people - 25 adults and eight dependents.
“We are working with other EU countries, as you would expect, to secure places for them on military flights and that hopefully will be facilitated in the coming days out of Kabul Airport.
“At the moment, the reports from Kabul Airport are still quite chaotic, so it’s not easy for even military planes to fly in and out to bring people home.
“Just to give people reassurance that we are working very closely with EU partners and the UK to ensure that when it is possible for planes to fly in and out...we are working very hard to ensure there are places on some of those planes for the Irish citizens to successfully be brought back home,” Minister Coveney said on Newstalk Breakfast.
The minister said that Ireland will be relying largely on the US to provide “safe passage” for the Irish citizens through Kabul International Airport.
This comes as a Dutch military flight took off from Kabul without passengers that were supposed to be returned to the Netherlands as the embassy staff and their families could not reach the plane on the runway due to the chaos within the airport.
While Minister Coveney said he was reasonably confident the 33 Irish citizens would be back in Ireland in the coming days, he added: “this is a fluid situation, though, and you can’t say anything with certainty”.
Minister Coveney said EU countries met at a Foreign Affairs Council yesterday and they agreed to “work together to ensure all EU citizens can get out and to share resources in that regard”.
The evacuation of the Irish citizens is being coordinated by the Irish Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
Minister Coveney described the situation on the ground in Afghanistan as “pretty catastrophic”.
“We now have a country of 38 million people in the hands of the Taliban, who are an extremist Islamist group, who in the past have shown such brutality and disregard for international law, particularly in terms of how they treat women and girls,” the Minister said.
The EU must engage with the Taliban and make it clear that, “just because you are the Taliban, doesn’t mean international laws do not apply,” Mr Coveney said.
The minister said estimates show that half of the Afghan population are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance and the EU will work with NGOs and other organisations to help the Afghan people.
More than 2,200 diplomats and other civilians have been evacuated from Afghanistan on military flights, a Western security official told Reuters on Wednesday, as efforts gathered pace to get people out after the Taliban seized the capital.
The Taliban have said they want peace, will not take revenge against old enemies and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law. But thousands of Afghans, many of whom helped U.S.-led foreign forces over two decades, are desperate to leave.
"We are continuing at a very fast momentum, logistics show no glitches as of now and we have been able to remove a little over 2,200 diplomatic staff, foreign security staff and Afghans who worked for embassies," the Western security official said.
It was unclear when civilian flights would resume, he said.
The official did not give a breakdown of how many Afghans were among the more than 2,200 people to leave nor was it clear if that tally included more than 600 Afghan men, women and children who flew out on Sunday, crammed into a U.S. military C-17 cargo aircraft.
The Taliban, fighting since their 2001 ouster to expel foreign forces, seized Kabul on Sunday after a lightning offensive as U.S.-led Western forces withdrew under a deal that included a Taliban promise not to attack them as they leave.
US forces running the airport had to stop flights on Monday after thousands of frightened Afghans swamped the facility looking for a flight out. Flights resumed on Tuesday as the situation came under control.
As they consolidated power, the Taliban said one of their leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 10 years. A Taliban official said leaders would show themselves to the world, unlike in the past when they lived in secret.
"Slowly, gradually, the world will see all our leaders, there will be no shadow of secrecy," the senior Taliban official told Reuters.
As Baradar was returning, a Taliban spokesman held the movement's first news briefing since their return to Kabul, suggesting they would impose their laws more softly than during their earlier time in power, between 1996-2001.
"We don't want any internal or external enemies," Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's main spokesman, told reporters.
Women would be allowed to work and study and "will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam", he said.
During their rule, also guided by sharia religious law, the Taliban stopped women from working. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out and then only when accompanied by a male relative.
Ramiz Alakbarov, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview the Taliban had assured the United Nations it can pursue humanitarian work in Afghanistan, which is suffering from a severe drought.
The European Union said it would only cooperate with Taliban authorities if they respected fundamental rights, including those of women.
Within Afghanistan, women expressed scepticism.
Afghan girls' education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, was wary of Taliban promises. "They have to walk the talk. Right now they are not doing that," she told Reuters.
Several women were ordered to leave their jobs during the Taliban's rapid advance across Afghanistan.
Mujahid said the Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and government officials, and were granting an amnesty for ex-soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.
"Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors," he said, adding that there was a "huge difference" between the Taliban now and 20 years ago.
He also said families trying to flee the country at the airport should return home and nothing would happen to them.
Mujahid's conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the "legitimate caretaker president" after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and vowed not to bow to Kabul's new rulers.
Saleh appears to have gone underground, and it is unclear how much support he can muster in a country exhausted by decades of conflict.
U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they had agreed to hold a virtual meeting of Group of Seven leaders next week to discuss a common strategy and approach to Afghanistan.
The decision by Biden, a Democrat, to stick to the withdrawal deal struck last year by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump has stirred widespread criticism at home and among U.S. allies.
Biden said he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on Trump's withdrawal deal. He blamed the Taliban takeover on Afghan leaders who fled and the army's unwillingness to fight.
Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president has said it was sad that Afghan athletes trapped in Kabul would not be able to compete in the Games and heartbreaking to watch a female athlete's video plea for help in reaching Tokyo.
"There are no commercial flights. We all have seen the images from the airport in Kabul. It became clear to us right from the beginning that there will be no safe way to try to bring these athletes to Tokyo," IPC President Andrew Parsons said.
Amid the country's ongoing turmoil, the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee said on Monday that two Afghan athletes would not be able to attend the Games that commence on Aug. 24.
Taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi and track athlete Hossain Rasouli had been scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on Aug. 17.
In a video message, Khudadadi made a plea for help on Tuesday as she sought to escape Kabul and revive her shattered dream of becoming the country's first female competitor at the Paralympic Games.
"I saw the video message. By seeing what's happening in Afghanistan and this is shattering the dreams of one of our athletes, it is really sad and it really breaks my heart," Parsons said.
Parsons added that the committee would work with the Afghan team to support her pursuing her dream again, including possibly competing at the games in Paris in 2024.
But now is "too soon" to discuss plans, he said.
"It's something that goes way, way, way, way bigger than sports. And we are first concerned in Afghanistan as a nation and with the human beings, especially the female of that nation. I think first, the nation needs to define its own destiny."
Like the Olympics that ended earlier this month, the Tokyo Paralympics will take place generally without spectators, organisers have said, as Japan has extended emergency measures in the capital and other regions that will run through the Games.
The host city Tokyo announced 4,377 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, after a record 5,773 on Friday.
There were new 18 cases confirmed on Wednesday among Paralympic participants, including six travelling from abroad, broadcaster NHK reported.
Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach will visit Japan next week to attend the Paralympic opening ceremony, Kyodo News said, citing unnamed sources.
During the Paralympics, set to close on Sept. 5, the IPC's Parsons said virus protocols that proved efficient during the Olympic Games would be in place to "minimise the risk".
About 88 per cent of thousands of athletes and officials attending the Games were vaccinated, IPC spokesperson Craig Spence said, though a number of local volunteers are yet to be fully vaccinated.
Spence added that those volunteers would not work closely with athletes.