Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today the effort to airlift those fleeing Afghanistan out of Kabul will end in the coming days, with a government source confirming to CBC News that last Canadian-operated flight out of the Kabul airport is expected to leave on Thursday.
Earlier today, another government source told CBC News that Canada could have just 24 to 48 hours to get planes in and out of the capital.
The source — who has knowledge of the mission but wasn't authorized to speak publicly — said only a limited number of flights remain for Canada's military and they're running against the clock."Yes, in the coming days this phase will end," Trudeau told reporters while campaigning today.
"But there's a lot more work to do that we will continue to do to keep helping the Afghan people."
The Thursday departure date was first reported by the Globe and Mail.
In a statement Wednesday evening, the Department of National Defence declined to comment "exactly when the civilian airlift will cease for reasons of operational security."
"The Canadian Armed Forces will continue working hard to evacuate as many people as possible for as long as conditions permit," the DND statement said.
Earlier Wednesday during a media briefing, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan would not comment on how much time is left. He said things are moving quickly on the ground.
WATCH | Sajjan offers update on situation in Kabul:
"The situation is changing literally by the hour. I'll be getting a detailed briefing shortly on the withdrawal plan but one thing I can assure you, we will continue to bring out as many Afghans as possible," he told reporters.
"As the Americans draw down to meet their deadline, partner nations, including Canada, must draw down our troops, assets and aircraft ahead of the Americans. These moves are necessary for the U.S. to safely maintain control of the airport until they depart."
Allies are up against similar deadlines. U.K. Defence Minister Ben Wallace said the evacuation effort is "down to hours now, not weeks."
Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution under the Taliban, which swept to power in recent days, have rushed to Kabul's airport hoping to escape the country.
It's like leaving the mouse in the mouth of the lion. - Former Afghan interpreter
Earlier this week, the government said Canada's special forces are working outside the security zone of the Kabul airport to identify and bring Canadian citizens and eligible Afghan nationals and their families through the security gates to waiting aircraft.
But many advocacy groups and people on the ground have reported problems with reaching officials and have criticized the government for not acting sooner.
One Afghan interpreter who worked for Canada's military said the the Taliban blocked him from getting onto a military plane and beat him up. CBC News is protecting his identity because he fears for his security and the safety of his three children and pregnant wife.
"They made us wait for two hours then said, 'You are not allowed to go inside.' They have plastic pipes and wooden sticks. They just beat you like a stone with a hammer," he said.
"It's like leaving the mouse in the mouth of the lion."
He said the military needs to send buses to escort families like his to the airport. He fears it may already be too late.
"I just count my days until I'm dead."
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said that as of Aug. 24, Canada had airlifted more than 2,700 people out of Kabul, including Afghan refugees, Canadian citizens, permanent residents and other foreign nationals.
Canada has struck an air-bridge agreement with other countries that allows people bound for Canada to catch rides out of Kabul on allied aircraft while Canada steps up in the same fashion.
Mendicino said today that close to 1,000 Afghans have arrived in Canada and over 300 have now finished quarantine.
"We are now going to be moving into the next phase of this operation, which is to provide support to Afghans after the coalition withdraws," he said.
Canada has so far evacuated more people out of Afghanistan than 10 other countries, including Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, according to the Immigration Minister's office's tracking numbers, which are based on media stories.
The White House says the airlift overall has flown out 82,300 Afghans, Americans and others on a mix of U.S., international and private flights. Britain said on Wednesday it has evacuated more than 11,000 people from Afghanistan.
WATCH | O'Toole says Trudeau has 'abandoned' people in Afghanistan:
Just yesterday, following a virtual G7 meeting, Trudeau said Canada will remain in Afghanistan beyond the Aug. 31 date to help evacuate more Canadians and eligible Afghans — as long as the security situation permits.
"I emphasized that Canada is ready to stay beyond the 31st deadline, if it's at all possible, because we want to save as many people as possible and Canadians are ready to work to try and do that," he said.
A PMO spokesperson later clarified that the prospect of Canadian Forces' remaining in Kabul beyond the end of the month depends on the extension of the U.S. military presence, and that Canada would not remain in Afghanistan after the U.S. pulled out its troops.
Direct appeal to Taliban
As the Taliban were taking Kabul on Aug. 15, Trudeau dismissed the notion that Canada would recognize them as a legitimate government. This week, he seemed to be shifting that position.
"The international community has a few very clear expectations and demands of the Taliban if they want to be even engaged with constructively and positively, whether it's financially, whether it's in terms of food security, whether it's plenty of things that are needed in order to set up a functional society that they have just taken by violence," he said.
Today, Maryam Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality, made a direct appeal to the Taliban to allow Canada to evacuate people safely.
"I want to take this opportunity to speak to our brothers the Taliban. We call on you to ensure the safe and secure passage of any individual in Afghanistan out of the country," she said.
After fielding more questions, she said her use of the word "brothers" was a cultural reference.
WATCH | Maryam Monsef calls on Taliban 'brothers' to permit Afghans to evacuate:
"Muslims refer to one another as brother and sisters," said Monsef, who fled the Taliban with her widowed mother and two younger sisters in the 1990s.
"But let me be very clear, we do not support the Taliban, we are horrified that the hard won gains of the past 20 years are at stake like this and being eroded like this."
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said the "language used by the Trudeau government is completely unacceptable."
"I would never abandon people as Mr. Trudeau has," he said in Brampton, Ont. today. "We had months to act when it would have been much less of a risk to operate."
WATCH | Singh says 'it looks like Canada has failed' its Afghan allies:
When asked what he would have done differently, the Conservative leader said he would work with the Canadian Armed Forces and allies.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Canada should not recognize the Taliban.
"When it comes to our relationship with Taliban, I am very firm on this is a terrorist organization that we should not be dealing with," he said during a campaign stop in Windsor, Ont.
"We should not be recognizing but we need to do everything we can to secure the release of our allies."
Watch | Retired journalist Kevin Newman says Afghans have virtually no way to get into Kabul airport: