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US Suspends Afghan Evacuee Flights Into US Because of Measles

FILE - Afghan refugees are seated as they are being processed inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Sept. 8, 2021.
FILE - Afghan refugees are seated as they are being processed inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Sept. 8, 2021.

​The United States says it has temporarily suspended all U.S.-bound flights of Afghan evacuees because of several cases of measles among Afghans who recently arrived in the United States.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday the pause was recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "out an abundance of caution."

She said four Afghans who had been diagnosed with measles in the United States were being quarantined in accordance with public health guidelines.

The Associated Press reported the suspension affects flights from U.S. bases in Germany and Qatar.

Earlier Friday, the White House said another 32 U.S. citizens or permanent residents left Afghanistan with help from the United States.

National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said 19 had left on a Qatar Airways flight and 13 others by land. The flight was the second evacuation flight allowed by the Taliban since U.S. troops left Afghanistan.

"Today's departures demonstrate how we are giving Americans clear and safe options to leave Afghanistan from different locations," Horne said in a statement Friday.

A State Department spokesperson, Jalina Porter, said the United States offered seats on Friday's flight to 44 U.S. citizens, but not all of them chose to travel. She estimated that some 100 Americans citizens remain in Afghanistan.

Taliban authorities in Afghanistan allowed the first Qatari charter flight to leave the Kabul airport Thursday, the first evacuee flight to take off since the United States ended its military operation in Afghanistan on Aug. 31.

"The Taliban have been cooperative in facilitating the departure of American citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights from (the Kabul airport). They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step," Horne said in a statement Thursday.

Horne added that the United States will "continue these efforts to facilitate the safe and orderly travel of American citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghans who worked for us and wish to leave Afghanistan."

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted his appreciation for the efforts of Qatar and the Taliban in making the departures happen.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha, seeking support for the evacuation of Americans and at-risk Afghans left behind in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.

In a call Thursday with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Blinken "commended the government of Qatar for its work to safely evacuate people" and "conveyed U.S. appreciation for Qatar's help facilitating the travel of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and others from Kabul," according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

Thousands left behind

There are many Afghans at risk as well as some Americans still stranded in Afghanistan, however, said Hazami Barmada, an independent humanitarian assisting in evacuation efforts. Estimates vary with respect to how many Afghans qualify for special visas because of their work with the United States or their status as a member of a vulnerable group, but they are believed to number in the thousands.

As of Thursday evening, local time, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, at least 705 people, including nine Americans, nine U.S. legal permanent residents and 170 holders of Special Immigrant Visas, were still waiting for the green light to depart, Barmada told VOA. SIVs are visas for Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other positions supporting the 20-year U.S. operation there.

"We understand that there's a lot of negotiations happening currently between the State Department and the Taliban from what we understand through the negotiator. And we're really hoping that our flights are not left behind, especially since they've already had the promise of departure," Barmada said.

It is unclear how many charter flights are awaiting departure in Mazar-e-Sharif. A State Department official said they are aware of only two charter planes in Afghanistan trying to leave.

On Wednesday, Blinken laid the blame for the delayed departures on the Taliban.

Concerns regarding foreign nationals unable to leave Afghanistan are "misplaced," VOA was told Thursday by Bilal Karimi, a member of Taliban Cultural Commission.

"Routine commercial flights remain suspended, but as soon as they are resumed, anyone intending to leave or come into the country and has with them valid documents, passports and visas will be free to do so," he said.

Charter flight confusion

While the U.S. insists it has no role in preventing flights from departing, the Biden administration also maintains that the lack of American personnel on the ground and inability to verify passengers' documentation and flight manifests are among the main reasons these flights have not been able to take off.

Blinken acknowledged "a fair amount of confusion" around charter flights, and said the U.S. government is "working to do everything in our power to support those flights and to get them off the ground."

The Taliban took control of Kabul on Aug. 15, marking the end of a stunning military campaign that overran most of Afghanistan.

The return to power of the fundamentalist movement has thousands of Afghans — mostly the educated and those who worked with international forces — worried that they may face Taliban reprisals. These people want to leave the country, but Taliban leaders are urging them to remain and help them in the reconstruction of Afghanistan to prevent an economic meltdown.

The Taliban announced their "caretaker" government Tuesday, but some of their controversial actions, including an alleged crackdown on journalists and anti-Taliban protests, already have raised doubts about whether the Islamist movement will live up to its commitments to protect human rights and not retaliate against former Afghan government officials.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.