(WASHINGTON) — There are a “small number” of U.S. citizens in the northern Afghan city Mazar-e-Sharif who have been unable to evacuate on chartered flights, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Tuesday, but he said the Taliban had grounded the aircraft because others manifested for these flights did not have valid travel documents.
The chartered flights for approximately 600 people have been held at Mazar-e-Sharif’s airport for over a week now, according to sources who helped organize them, with at least 19 U.S. citizens waiting in the city to board and flee Afghanistan.
A top Republican lawmaker said Sunday these Americans and at-risk Afghans were essentially being held hostage by the Taliban – something that Blinken dismissed Tuesday.
The Taliban have publicly said they will allow safe passage for those who want to leave, but without international flights yet and with overland journeys dangerous, it’s been intensely difficult for those that were left behind by President Joe Biden’s evacuation operations.
Among them are at least 100 U.S. citizens, Blinken said Tuesday, adding that the State Department has been “in direct contact with virtually all of them. We have case-management teams assigned to them to make sure that those who want to leave can in fact do so.”
Four of those Americans were able to evacuate over land to a neighboring country, a senior State Department official confirmed to ABC News Monday, saying the department helped facilitate their travel.
The Taliban were aware and did not impede their transit, the official added. They declined to say which country the family of four arrived in, but said local U.S. embassy officials met them at the border and said they were in “good condition.”
Hours later, however, Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, who served as former President Donald Trump’s White House doctor, accused the State Department of “lying,” saying the agency “didn’t do a damn thing for these people for 12 days except almost get them killed repeatedly.”
“This is an attempt to save face by the administration for the Americans they left behind. This is a woman with three children from age 15 all the way down to two-years-old, and they did nothing to try to expedite this,” Curt Mills, a U.S. Army veteran and Trump appointee at the Pentagon, told Fox News. “It’s like we carried the ball to the 99-and-a-half yard line, and them taking it that last half yard and being like, ‘Look what we did.'”
The State Department declined to comment in response.
But Blinken said Tuesday the agency has been “working around the clock with NGOs, with members of Congress, and advocacy groups” and “conducting a great deal of diplomacy on this,” including with Taliban leaders.
That includes with the NGO Ascend, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering women and girls through mountain climbing. Its CEO Marina LeGree told ABC News Sunday that its Afghan members are “among hundreds of individuals — including some American citizens — who have been blocked by the Taliban from leaving Mazar-e-Sharif by charter plane for six days” at that point — now going on eight.
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, went further, telling Fox News Sunday that the Taliban had created a “hostage situation where they’re not going to allow American citizens to leave until they get full recognition from the United States of America.”
Blinken confirmed the State Department had identified “a relatively small number of Americans” in Mazar-e-Sharif with families trying to evacuate, but he denied there was “any hostage-like situation” or anyone held on aircraft or at the airport.
“It’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said that those without valid documents at this point can’t leave – but because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” he added.
Some critics have rejected that, saying the Biden administration must do more to get these flights off the ground and help these U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans. But Blinken said while they’re “doing all we can to clear any roadblocks… to make sure that charter flights carrying Americans or others to whom we have a special responsibility can depart Afghanistan safely,” the U.S. has limited ability to help.
“Without personnel on the ground, we can’t verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols, so this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through,” he said Tuesday in Qatar, visiting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to thank the Qatari government for its help hosting tens of thousands of evacuees.
Qatari teams have flown into Kabul late last week to make repairs at the international airport and negotiate with the Taliban to reopen it securely. Speaking alongside Blinken and Austin, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told reporters the airport had resumed chartered flights for aid groups and United Nations officials, including the top U.N. aid official Martin Griffiths who visited and met with Taliban leaders Sunday.
“We are about to get everything operational very soon,” Al Thani added, saying negotiations were ongoing with the Taliban to ensure the airport’s management and security — less than two weeks after ISIS-K, the terror group’s branch in Afghanistan, said it attacked a gate and killed at least 182 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
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