An Air Force C-130J transport aircraft took off from Kabul this morning with 85 people on board news agency ANI said, as the government continues efforts to evacuate Indian citizens from the Afghanistan capital.
The plane landed in Tajikistan for refueling, ANI said quoting sources.
India has evacuated all diplomatic staff but around 1,000 citizens remain in several cities in the war-torn country, and ascertaining their location and condition is proving to be a challenge, a Home Ministry official said, since not all of them registered themselves with the embassy.
Late last night sources also said another IAF plane – a C-17 transport – is on standby to fly to Kabul to bring home at least 250 more Indian citizens.
That aircraft is expected to take off as soon as enough Indian nationals can move to the airport – access to which has reportedly been cut off, or at least made difficult, by Taliban check posts.
The government has said it is working with the United States – whose forces are believed to control the airport’s interior sections – to facilitate movement of IAF transport aircraft, sources have said.
Among the many Indians still in Afghanistan are around 200 Sikhs and Hindus who have taken refuge at a gurudwara in Kabul.
Late Wednesday a spokesperson for the Taliban – which has been trying to project a more moderate image as it tries to win over global opinion – released a video statement of the gurudwara head saying he had been assured of their safety.
Two IAF C-17s flew into Kabul on August 15, after the Taliban marched into the city and took effective control of Afghanistan, to evacuate Indian diplomats and embassy personnel, including Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel tasked with guarding them.
The first aircraft took off under very challenging circumstances given the chaos at the airport, where thousands of desperate Afghans were frantically trying to flee advancing Taliban forces.
The second brought back the remaining staff, including Ambassador Rudrendra Tandon.
Foreign Minister S Jaishankar described the evacuation of embassy staff as a “difficult and complicated exercise” – one that may have been completed only after a conversation with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken.
Yesterday sources told NDTV that messages from the Taliban’s political office in Qatar urged the Indian government to reconsider evacuating its diplomats. The messages – seen as an outreach of sorts – said India need fear no attacks on its embassy or staff from groups like the Lashkar or Jaish.
The government chose to set aside these messages and pull embassy staff out of Afghanistan anyway, since it had received input of possible attacks by these groups.
The Taliban took effective control of Afghanistan on Sunday, after President Ashraf Ghani fled and the group walked into capital Kabul with no opposition. This was after a staggeringly fast rout of major cities following two decades of war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Feared for its brutal and oppressive reign two decades ago, the group has tried to present a more moderate image since it took effective control of Afghanistan this week.
It has, for instance, claimed women will have rights, including to education and work, and that the media will be independent and free. It has also insisted that no threat will be posed to any country.
But violent response to protests – several were killed after the terrorists opened fire – and news an Afghan journalist has been barred from working – suggest the ‘moderate’ stance may not last long.
With input from ANI