The UK has stopped taking people into Kabul airport to remove them from Afghanistan, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace has said, and the evacuation process will end in “a matter of hours”.
Accepting that there would be Afghan translators or others who worked with UK forces who would not get out, Wallace said these people would be advised to seek access to third countries or offered advice on “how they can look after themselves” under Taliban rule.
“We at 4.30 this morning, UK-time, closed the Baron’s hotel, shut the processing centre, and the gates were closed at Abbey Gate,” Wallace told Sky News, referring to the Kabul hotel where those leaving were checked, and the gate leading to the airport.
“We will process those people that we’ve brought with us, the 1,000 people approximately inside the airfield now, and we will seek a way to continue to find a few people in the crowds where we can, but overall the main processing is now closed and we have a matter of hours,” he added.
On Thursday, a deadly suicide bomb and gun attack on crowds waiting outside the airport killed at least 72 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops.
Wallace said the end of the processing of evacuees would have happened at this point regardless of the attack, given the final US departure from Kabul on Tuesday.
“We closed the Baron’s hotel almost exactly on schedule,” he said. “The explosion was horrendous, but it didn’t hasten our departure. We were going last night, and that was always going to be, once the US had decided 31 August was the final day.”
Asked on Sky about the fate of people such as a translator for UK forces and his family who had not been able to reach the airport, Wallace said: “We can help him. We can’t can’t him as optimally as we like right now. Obviously, we’ve had to close the hotel where we did the processing.”
Such people, he said, should try to reach neighbouring countries and then apply to reach the UK. “We will give them advice about how they make their way somewhere, but also how they can look after themselves at the moment.”
The UK has removed about 13,000 Afghans since the airlift started, among 16,000 people taken out since April, Wallace said. “But as I’ve said repeatedly for really the last two weeks, the sad fact is not every single one will get out.”
Boris Johnson, speaking after he chaired a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee following the attack on the airport, said the UK would “keep going up until the last moment” with the airlift.
He said: “The conclusion is that we’re able to continue with the programme in the way that we’ve been running it, according to the timetable that we’ve got.”
He added: “We’re now coming towards the very end of it in any event, and we’ve already extracted the overwhelming majority of those under both the schemes – the eligible persons, UK nationals, the Afghan interpreters and others. And it’s been totally phenomenal effort by the UK. There’s been nothing like it for decades and decades.”
However, a number of MPs have queried whether the majority of eligible people have left, saying that of family members of constituents, almost none had been removed.
Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham in south London, said that of 228 family members of 34 constituents, including UK nationals, joint UK-Afghan nationals and relatives of UK nationals, none had managed to leave since the Taliban took over.
While ministers had been briefing MPs, Harman said, it appeared impossible to get news on how people could leave. “They keep saying: ‘Here’s an email address to get updates,’” she said. “But we have had no feedback aside from the changing kaleidoscope of general advice. We’ve had no feedback on our individual cases. None of us have.”