Exclusive: Detained Afghan pilots preparing to fly out of Tajikistan on U.S.-brokered flight

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 150 U.S.-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel, held in neighboring Tajikistan for nearly three months since escaping with their planes as the Taliban seized their country, were preparing to depart on Tuesday on a flight arranged by the U.S. government, two of the pilots and others close to them said.

The Afghans had spent a full day waiting at the airport in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, for a flight that appeared to have been delayed. They were hoping it would not be canceled and they would depart before the end of the day.

“We hope to go out soon,” one of the Afghans told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. embassy in Dushanbe could not be immediately reached for comment.

The plight of the Afghan pilots — including one who is at a very advanced stage of her pregnancy — became a focus of U.S. lawmakers and military veterans, who grew frustrated by what they believed was a sluggish U.S. relocation effort.

They arrived in Tajikistan with advanced military aircraft at the end of the war, were detained by Tajik authorities and have been awaiting a U.S. relocation ever since — hoping to move to a third country for eventual U.S. resettlement.

Reuters exclusively detailed first hand accounts from the pregnant pilot and other members of the group about their frustrations with their detention, and was first to report U.S. plans to relocate them.

Afghan Air Force personnel flew dozens of advanced military aircraft to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August as the Taliban swept to power.

The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of U.S.-trained pilots who fled abroad and are still known to be in limbo.

In September, a U.S.-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.

Even before the Taliban’s takeover, the U.S.-trained, English-speaking pilots had become prime targets of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and assassinated them off-base.

Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm. But pilots who spoke with Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.

SMUGGLED CELL PHONES

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a congressional hearing in September he was concerned about the pilots in Tajikistan and would work with the State Department to “see if we can move this forward”.

But the process of relocating the Afghans from Tajikistan proved to be more time consuming and complex than the similar effort in Uzbekistan.

A U.S. official told Reuters that the United States faced difficulty securing Tajik authorization to access the pilots.

Most of the Afghan pilots and other personnel were held at a sanatorium in Tajikistan. Those in that group who communicated with Reuters did so on cell phones kept hidden from guards and said the Tajik authorities took away their identity documents.

In an interview with Reuters, the pregnant pilot, who is 29, had voiced her concerns to Reuters about risks to her and her child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently moved to a maternity hospital before being transferred back to the sanatorium ahead of her departure.

“We are like prisoners here. Not even like refugees, not even like immigrants. We have no legal documents or way to buy something for ourselves,” she said last month.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Graff)

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