European powers scramble to evacuate from Afghanistan

A US military helicopter is pictured flying above the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2021. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

European powers present in Afghanistan moved Sunday to evacuate their nationals and local staff as the Taliban were on the outskirts of the Afghan capital poised to take power.

Germany moved dozens of diplomatic personnel from its embassy in Kabul to the airport ahead of an evacuation planned from Monday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter.

“We are not going to risk our people falling into the hands of the Taliban,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Bild daily.

France also set up a temporary diplomatic mission near the airport, officials said.

The Taliban were on the brink of total victory in Afghanistan, with their fighters ordered to wait on the outskirts of the capital and the government conceding it was preparing for a “transfer of power”.

Other NATO members including Britain, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Spain have also announced they are evacuating their embassy personnel.

The French presidency said it would “do the utmost to guarantee the safety” of French nationals still in the country as well as Afghan staff.

In a statement it said the evacuation involving several hundred people had begun in April.

“France is one of the few countries that has maintained the capability… to protect the Afghans who worked for the French army, as well as journalists, human rights activists, artists and Afghan figures who are especially threatened,” the statement said.

Paris has vowed an “exceptional effort” to welcome Afghans under threat for their human rights work. More than 600 Afghans employed in French organisations in the country have already arrived in France along with their families, the government said on Friday.

Britain is deploying around 600 troops to help evacuate its roughly 3,000 nationals from the country, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the “vast bulk” of remaining embassy staff in Kabul would return to the UK.

He was to hold fresh crisis talks on Wednesday, recalling parliament from its summer break to discuss what Britain, which lost 457 troops in the two-decade-long war, should do next.

Italy’s defence ministry said a first military plane would arrive Sunday to begin “emergency evacuation” operations.

Italy, which once had one of the largest Western contingents in Afghanistan totalling some 50,000 troops over 20 years, already repatriated its last troops in June.

A total of 53 Italian soldiers were killed, and 723 were wounded.

Denmark and Norway will temporarily shut their Kabul embassies while Finland will evacuate up to 130 local Afghan workers, ministers from the Nordic countries said on Friday.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde also noted that the country’s evacuees would include Afghan interpreters and other local staff.

Meanwhile the Dutch embassy in Kabul was evacuated overnight and is operating from a makeshift office near the airport, the country’s foreign ministry said Sunday.

The Netherlands said Friday that it would take in Afghan interpreters and some other embassy staff.