More than 140 Afghan Air Force pilots and crew members detained in Tajikistan since mid-August after fleeing Afghanistan were flown out of the country Tuesday with the help of the American authorities, according to a retired U.S. Air Force officer who leads a volunteer group that has assisted the Afghans.
The flight, bound for the United Arab Emirates, ended a three-month ordeal for the U.S.-trained military personnel, who had flown American-supplied aircraft to Tajikistan to escape the Taliban only to end up in custody.
The Afghans said they were counting on the U.S. government to secure their freedom after they were detained by the Tajik authorities after the Taliban seized power in their home country and they fled, fearing reprisals.
In WhatsApp audio recordings made on smuggled cellphones, the English-speaking pilots described poor conditions, insufficient food rations and limited medical care at the site where they were being held outside the capital, Dushanbe.
Brig. Gen. David Hicks, a retired Air Force officer who is chief executive of Operation Sacred Promise, said a plane carrying the Afghans had departed Dushanbe on Tuesday night, U.S. Eastern time, after a long delay.
“It’s just such a great relief for the entire team knowing that they are getting out of this period of uncertainty and taking the first step in starting their new lives,” General Hicks said. “Hopefully, they will all be reunited with their families soon.”
General Hicks said the flight had been arranged by the State Department, which also aided in the evacuation in September of a separate group of Afghan pilots and crew members who had flownto Uzbekistan. Those Afghans were taken to a U.S. military base in the United Arab Emirates.
The Taliban had pressured Uzbekistan to return the pilots and crew members to Afghanistan.
The State Department did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
On Sunday, a department spokesperson offered no timeline for relocating the Afghans but said American officials were speaking regularly with the Tajikistan government. The spokesperson said the U.S. government had verified the identities of the approximately 150 Afghans after gaining access to them in mid-October.
Several thousand other Afghan Air Force pilots and crew members remain in hiding in Afghanistan, with some saying they feel abandoned by the U.S. military, their longtime combat ally. They say they are desperate to leave Afghanistan because they and their families are at risk of being hunted down and killed by the Taliban.
In telephone interviews from safe houses in Afghanistan, several Afghan Air Force pilots described moving from house to house to avoid detection. They said they were running out of money and did not dare look for work because they feared being discovered by the militants.
The Taliban have said there is a general amnesty for any Afghan who served in the former government or worked with the U.S. government or military. But several Afghan Air Force pilots have been killed by the Taliban this year.
Bryant Rousseau contributed reporting.