The Royal Air Force has launched a secret mission to rescue Afghan translators who have escaped over the border of the Taliban-run country, The Daily Telegraph has learned.
The Ministry of Defence is sending long-range, heavy-lift strategic transport aircraft to nations neighbouring Afghanistan to collect Afghans who previously served with British soldiers during 20 years of UK operations there, it is understood.
The Daily Telegraph has agreed not to name the locations at which the aircraft could land due to security concerns.
Hundreds of Afghans may be collected and resettled in the UK under the mission, which is understood to have started this week. The British military is also open to picking up stranded foreign nationals of allied states.
Flying in to help people gathering near the border
The blueprint has been drawn up after the emergency airlift out of Kabul ended in August, leaving more than 300 Afghan interpreters eligible to come to Britain stuck in Afghanistan.
The Government pledged to bolster the presence of consular staff in embassies in neighbouring countries in order to help process those able to escape over land borders after the initial airlift ended.
However, concerns arose in Whitehall that many fleeing Afghans who crossed the border would not easily be able to travel the distance to any neighbouring state’s capital city in order to reach a British embassy.
The RAF operation is expected to help people gathering nearer the border, rather than in capital cities, of neighbouring states.
A formal government announcement about the covert mission is expected within days, with the rescue operations set to last as long as several weeks, according to sources.
It is understood that C-17 Globemasters, long-range strategic transport aircraft, and A400M Atlases, four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft, are likely to be involved with the evacuation efforts, under plans drawn up by the Ministry of Defence.
Both aircraft are versatile and are able to land and take off on a wider array of terrain than merely conventional airstrips, including roads, desert and scrubland.
The situation was said to be fluid and the planning for the evacuation operation flexible. It is thought that some Afghans picked up by RAF jets could be taken to hubs outside the region to be processed, while others may be flown straight to the UK.
Commitment to ‘get as many people out as possible’
A Government source said: “More RAF aircraft are going in to pick people up from ‘friendly’ nations. We’ll be picking up a variety of foreign nationals, ARAP [translators eligible for resettlement under the Government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy], anyone left behind.”
A Whitehall source highlighted that the Government had made commitments to “get as many people out as possible and they will do what they can to make that happen”.
The MoD declined to comment on the current operation, but a spokesman said: “During Operation Pitting, we worked tirelessly to safely evacuate as many people out of Afghanistan as possible, airlifting more than 15,000 people from Kabul including thousands of ARAP applicants and their dependents.”
The spokesman added: “We will continue to do all we can to support those who have supported us, and our commitment to those who are eligible for relocation is not time-limited and will endure.
“The ARAP scheme remains open to applications and we will continue to support those who are eligible.”