Exclusive: Detained Afghan pilots fly out of Tajikistan on US mediator plane

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (Reuters) – US-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel boarded a US-brokered plane out of Tajikistan on Tuesday, ending a nearly three-month detention trial that began as they fled in their plane during Taliban takeover, Afghan sources say.

The pilots’ situation had attracted US Congress control – with lawmakers and military veterans frustrated over what they believed was a sluggish U.S. relocation effort.

A pilot shared photos of the group boarding the plane, saying it was destined for the United Arab Emirates. Flight tracking data showed it had left the country.

“It’s a relief,” said David Hicks, a retired U.S. brigadier general who helps lead a charity called Operation Sacred Promise, which is working to evacuate and resettle Afghan Air Force personnel.

The Afghan staff in Tajikistan represented the last major group of US-trained pilots who fled abroad and were still known to be in limbo.

The group of evacuees included a US-trained Afghan pilot at an advanced stage of her pregnancy who had expressed fears for her unborn baby in an interview with Reuters.

The group flew to Tajikistan in military aircraft at the end of the war, was detained by the Tajik authorities and had awaited a US relocation – in the hope that the transfer to the Middle East would lead to a possible resettlement in the US.

Reuters detailed reports from the pregnant pilot and other members of the group about their frustrations over their detention, and was the first to report U.S. plans to relocate them.

The Pentagon estimates that the expected group of evacuees totaled about 191 – larger than the more than 150 Afghans previously known to be in two locations in Tajikistan. It did not explain the numbers.

Afghan air force personnel flew dozens of military planes to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August when the Taliban came to power.

In September, a US-brokered deal allowed a large group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.

Even before the Taliban took power, the American-trained, English-speaking pilots had become the main target of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and killed them outside the base.

Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the renewed security forces and that they will not be harmed. But pilots who spoke to Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told a congressional hearing in September that he was concerned about the pilots in Tajikistan and would work with the State Department to “see if we can move this forward.”

But the process of moving the Afghans from Tajikistan proved to be more time-consuming and complex than the corresponding effort in Uzbekistan.

A US official told Reuters that the US was having difficulty securing the Tajiks’ permission to access the pilots.

Republican U.S. Representative Austin Scott, who raised the issue of the pregnant pilot in a hearing, expressed relief that Afghan Air Force personnel “are no longer stranded in Tajikistan.”

“I would like to thank everyone who has made this release possible for their help, especially Department of Defense officials,” Scott said.

Most of the Afghan pilots and other staff were held at a sanatorium in Tajikistan. Those in the group that communicated with Reuters did so on cell phones kept hidden from guards, saying the Tajik authorities took their identity documents.

The pregnant pilot, who is 29, had expressed concern to Reuters about risks to her and her unborn child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently transferred to a maternity hospital before being transferred back to the sanatorium prior to her departure.

“We are like prisoners here. Not even as refugees, not even as immigrants. We have no legal documents or way to buy anything for ourselves,” she said last month.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Edited by Peter Graff and Peter Cooney

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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