Detained Afghan pilots preparing to fly out of Tajikistan on US-brokered flight
More than 150 US-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel, held in neighbouring Tajikistan for nearly three months since escaping with their planes as the Taliban seized their country, were preparing to depart on Tuesday on a flight arranged by the US government, two of the pilots and others close to them said.
The Afghans had spent a full day waiting at the airport in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, for a flight that appeared to have been delayed. They were hoping it would not be canceled and they would depart before the end of the day.
"We hope to go out soon," one of the Afghans told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The US embassy in Dushanbe could not be immediately reached for comment.
The plight of the Afghan pilots — including one who is at a very advanced stage of her pregnancy — became a focus of US lawmakers and military veterans, who grew frustrated by what they believed was a sluggish US relocation effort.
They arrived in Tajikistan with advanced military aircraft at the end of the war, were detained by Tajik authorities and have been awaiting a US relocation ever since — hoping to move to a third country for eventual US resettlement.
Reuters exclusively detailed first hand accounts from the pregnant pilot and other members of the group about their frustrations with their detention, and was first to report US plans to relocate them.
Afghan Air Force personnel flew dozens of advanced military aircraft to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August as the Taliban swept to power.
The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of US-trained pilots who fled abroad and are still known to be in limbo.
In September, a US-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.
Even before the Taliban's takeover, the US-trained, English-speaking pilots had become prime targets of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and assassinated them off-base, according to Reuters.
Afghanistan's new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm. But pilots who spoke with Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.