Italy creates ‘air bridge’ to evacuate civilians from Afghanistan

Italy evacuated embassy staff and other Italian and Afghan nationals on its first emergency flight from Kabul on Sunday night, the foreign ministry has confirmed.

Italy creates ‘air bridge’ to evacuate civilians from Afghanistan
Afghan security personnel stand guard at the Hamid Karzai Airport on Monday. Photo: Sajjad HUSSAIN/AFP

The KC-767 military transport plane touched down about 13.30 local time at Rome’s Fiumicino international airport, carrying some 50 diplomats and 20 Afghans who had worked with Italian forces in Afghanistan, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Their arrival came after a last-minute evacuation on Sunday at Kabul’s airport, as Western powers scrambled to fly out their remaining embassy staff and Afghans who worked as interpreters or other support roles.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in an interview on Rai Radio 1 on Monday morning that “other compatriots who were in Afghanistan and who responded to the call of the Foreign Ministry to return to Italy” were also on the first evacuation flight.

“This is the first of the flights that will take off from Kabul to Italy to repatriate citizens in the next few days”, Di Maio said.

The ministry had urged Italian nationals to leave the country over the weekend following the Taliban’s advance into the Afghan capital.

At a security committee meeting held in Palermo on Sunday, Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said reports “indicate the Taliban will not take immediate action. This should allow time to ensure the departure of Italian nationals and of those who have cooperated with the armed forces, such as doctors, interpreters.”

READ ALSO: German forces to help evacuate people from Afghanistan

Following the arrival of the evacuation flight on Monday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s office tweeted that “Italy’s commitment is to protect the Afghan citizens who have collaborated with our mission”.

The announcements came after Washington announced on Thursday that it was sending thousands of troops to Kabul to evacuate diplomats and other nationals.

Di Maio had said in an interview with newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on Saturday that “the priority is to secure our compatriots”, adding that “we cannot think of abandoning the Afghan people after 20 years”.

In June, Italy repatriated its remaining approximately 900 soldiers as part of the accelerated withdrawal of NATO forces.

The country was one of the most committed Western powers in Afghanistan, which since 2015 alongside the United States, Turkey, Britain and Germany, formed the bulk of NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission to train and advise Afghan troops.

Italy deployed 50,000 troops in Afghanistan over the past 20 years following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

During that period, 53 Italian soldiers died and 723 were injured.

According to the defence ministry, 228 Afghans who have worked for Italy and their families are already in Italy.

The Taliban takeover after President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday concluded a lightning offensive that overran a string of regional capitals in just over a week following NATO’s withdrawal.

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Italy says it has received most Afghan evacuees in EU

Italy said it has taken in the largest number of Afghans fleeing the war-ravaged country following the Taliban takeover, vowing "not to abandon" vulnerable groups after airlift evacuations end.

Italy says it has received most Afghan evacuees in EU
Afghans hoping to leave Afghanistan walk to the main entrance gate of Kabul airport in Kabul on August 28th, 2021, following the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP

Western nations are scrambling to get their citizens out of Kabul airport ahead of an August 31st deadline, along with Afghan nationals flagged as eligible to go.

Italy’s foreign minister said it had evacuated close to 5,000 Afghan citizens in recent days, speaking at Rome’s Fiumicino airport as the last Italian aircraft from Kabul landed with 58 more Afghan citizens on board.

“We are the EU country taking in the biggest number of Afghan evacuees,” Luigi Di Maio said on Saturday.

The US, Britain and Germany are leading in terms of the number of people airlifted out of the country. Around 4,000 Afghans were among the evacuees
taken in by Germany, while Italy has evacuated 4,900 Afghan citizens.

READ ALSO: Germany’s evacuation operation in Afghanistan ends

But Di Maio said it was still hoping to fly more Afghans out with the help of the United Nations, NGOs and other countries after the August 31 deadline.

“There are still so many Afghan nationals waiting to be evacuated, and we can no longer do that with the airlift,” the minister said.

He added that “a second, more difficult phase” of the evacuations process would now commence.

“Our imperative will be not to abandon the Afghan people, not to abandon Afghan women, or young Afghans and all those who over all these years have shown a great desire for evolution, for change,” Di Maio said.

More than 5,000 people remain inside Kabul airport awaiting evacuation, with just days to go before the final pull-out.

About 109,000 people have been flown out of the country since August 14th, the day before the Taliban swept to power, according to the US government.

Twin suicide bombs on Friday claimed by a local affiliate of the Islamic State scuppered the already chaotic operation, killing scores of civilians and 13 American troops crowded around one of the airport’s main access gates.