Qatar, Turkey work with Taliban in race to reopen Kabul airport


DOHA (AFP) – Qatar said Thursday it is working with the Taliban to quickly reopen Kabul s airport, whose closure since the departure of US troops could pose major strategic and humanitarian challenges.

A jet from the Gulf country was the first foreign aircraft to land in the Afghan capital on Wednesday since frenzied evacuations ended a day earlier with the American withdrawal.

A flight from Doha then landed in Kabul on Thursday, carrying experts who will examine security and operational aspects pertaining to the airport, according to a source close to the matter.

Doha, a major transit point for Afghan refugees, said it was working hard to swiftly resume operations.

“We remain hopeful that we will be able to operate it as soon as possible,” said Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, whose country has close contacts with the Taliban which assumed control of Kabul on August 15.

“It s very important… that the Taliban demonstrate their commitment to provide safe passage and freedom of movement for the people of Afghanistan,” said Sheikh Mohammed.

“Hopefully in the next few days we will hear some good news,” he added.

Sheikh Mohammed said discussions about reopening the airport also included Turkey, which he hoped could provide technical assistance.

Turkey said Thursday it was “evaluating” proposals from the Taliban and others on the airport, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saying security “inside and outside” the facility remained the top priority.

An Afghan civil aviation official told Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera that Kabul will begin airport operations “soon”.

“Domestic flights will begin tomorrow (Friday), as for international, it ll take time,” he said.

– Not in working condition –

The United States, which seized the airport in the final weeks of its 20-year military mission to fly out tens of thousands of people, said it supported Qatari and Turkish efforts to restore the airport.

The airport had previously been operated through contractors from third countries who are no longer able to do so, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington.

“Before you can have a functioning airport,” Price told reporters, “you have to have an element or an entity that is capable of running the airport.”

Commercial airliners or charters also need security assurances and an airport that is no longer “in a state of profound disrepair,” Price said.

A suicide bombing on August 26 claimed by the Islamic State extremist group — an opponent of the Taliban regime — killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 US soldiers as vast crowds gathered outside to fly out of the country.

The airport already presented challenges as it has a single runway. It is only five kilometres (three miles) from downtown Kabul, forcing planes to go into a holding pattern over the city if they cannot land immediately.

A working government is vital both for bringing in humanitarian supplies, which are badly needed, and for bringing out more people who fear the Taliban.

On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country has evacuated some 17,000 British and Afghan nationals since April and reiterated that those left behind — including those most at risk — can travel to the UK.

“That s why we watch with great interest what may be possible at Kabul airport,” he said.

The Taliban are returning to power 20 years after their five-year government was toppled by US-led troops for harbouring Al-Qaeda which carried out the September 11 attacks.

After 20 years as insurgents, the Taliban now have the massive task of getting the country and its infrastructure up and running.

Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, has in recent months hosted a flurry of talks between the US, Taliban and the former Afghan government.

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