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State Dept. working ‘at the highest levels’ to clear Mazar-i-Sharif charter aircraft

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. (State Department/Released)

U.S. State Department officials acknowledged Tuesday that they have been unable so far to get six chartered aircraft carrying about 1,000 evacuees out of Mazar-i-Sharif, but it was not clear whether the holdup was due to U.S. bureaucracy or Taliban action.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken denied that the Taliban were forbidding the aircraft to take off or the passengers to disembark.

“We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage-like situation at Mazar-i-Sharif,” Blinken said during a visit to Qatar.

After Kabul fell, some non-governmental organizations that could not get their people through the gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport quickly re-routed evacuees to the airport at Mazar-i-Sharif, about 265 miles away. But the aircraft chartered to take them have been stranded there for days.

A senior administration official who spoke to Pentagon reporters Tuesday said some of the challenge may lie in the inability to screen passengers, which affects where the aircraft would be allowed to land.

“When it comes to charter aircraft like those apparently on the ground in Mazar, the U.S. government simply does not have the personnel on the ground we once would have had to identify and take care of potential aviation security concerns,” the official said.

Of the tens of thousands of Afghans flown out in the Kabul airlift, scores have “popped red” when screened against biometric and law enforcement databases at their destinations. Most of have since been cleared by further screening.

But other evacuees are being further investigated for security risks, the official said. Those evacuees are being held at their intermediate staging bases as they await further screening.

At least one evacuee was detained for potential ties to ISIS, Defense One reported in late August.

One non-governmental organization that has passengers waiting to depart in Mazar-i-Sharif told Al Jazeera the evacuees had been held at the airport for more than a week, and that the Taliban were not letting any flights leave.

The senior administration official said the U.S. is working to clear the flights through diplomatic channels “at the highest levels. That includes engagement with those who have a stake in the future of civilian air travel into and out of Afghanistan,” including Qatar and Turkey.

The U.S. Air Force and chartered flights like the ones still stuck in Mazar-i-Sharif airlifted more than 124,000 people out of Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban.

All U.S. forces departed Afghanistan on Aug. 31, and the Pentagon has repeatedly said there is no military role for getting any of the remaining Americans or Afghans out.

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