WASHINGTON: Some 200 Afghans were set to begin new lives in the United States on Friday as an airlift got under way for translators and others who risk Taliban retaliation because they worked for the US government during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, US officials said.
The operation to evacuate U.S.-affiliated Afghans and family members comes as the US troop pullout nears completion and government forces struggle to repulse Taliban advances.
The first planeload of some 200 evacuees arrived at Fort Lee, a US military base in Virginia, for final paperwork processing and medical examinations.
The Afghans who worked for the United States are being granted Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) entitling them to bring their families. As many as 50,000 or more people ultimately could be evacuated in “Operation Allies Refuge”.
“These arrivals are just the first of many as we work quickly to relocate SIV-eligible Afghans out of harm’s way — to the United States, to U.S. facilities abroad, or to third countries — so that they can wait in safety while they finish their visa applications,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement that the United States would continue to use “the full force of our diplomatic, economic, and development toolkit” to support the Afghan people.
The first group of arrivals is among some 2,500 SIV applicants and family members who have almost completed the process, clearing them for evacuation, said Russ Travers, Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser.
The Afghans were expected to remain at Fort Lee for up to seven days before joining relatives or host families across the country.
The evacuees underwent “rigorous background checks” and COVID-19 tests, Travers added. Some were already vaccinated, and the rest will be offered jabs at Fort Lee.
The surging violence in Afghanistan has created serious problems for many SIV applicants whose paperwork is in the pipeline.