Trudeau says Canadian diplomats out of Afghanistan as fears mount for interpreters

·4 min read

OTTAWA — All Canadian diplomats have left Afghanistan, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Tuesday, raising fresh questions and concerns about the government’s promise to help hundreds of former interpreters and their families still stuck in the country.

The prime minister revealed during an election campaign event in the Greater Toronto Area that a total of nine flights out of Afghanistan have arrived in Canada over the past few weeks, including two planes that arrived late on Monday night.

The Department of National Defence has confirmed one of those planes carrying Canadian diplomats and special forces troops landed in Ottawa while a second plane arrived in Toronto carrying Afghans who previously helped Canada in Afghanistan.

Both were chartered civilian aircraft and not military planes.

“Over the last weeks, we have had nine flights out of Afghanistan, including having fully evacuated all of our diplomatic officials,” Trudeau said during an event in Markham, Ont., where he was highlighting a promise on child-care funding.

“We're also working closely with the U.S. and looking at how we can remove more people in the coming days and weeks. And we're working with our allies on what Canada as part of the international community can do to stabilize the situation, protect civilians, and put an end to the violence.”

There was no immediate word on how many such Afghans were on board the Toronto flight, though hundreds remain trapped in the country, with reports of families hiding in safe houses or stuck in parks and other places with nowhere to go.

Trudeau revealed on Monday that more than 800 former interpreters, cultural advisers, cleaners, drivers and other Afghans who supported Canada as well as their families have been resettled under a special program launched last month.

That program followed significant pressure from Canadian veterans and others worried about their former colleagues. Many of those veterans and opposition parties have since accused the government of having been slow to respond, and complained about excessive red tape.

Trudeau did not say how Canada would continue to evacuate former interpreters and their families now that all Canadian diplomats have left, and he sidestepped a question about what has been described as the onerous and unrealistic requirements for those trying to escape.

“I have been assured by immigration officials that every flexibility is being given to enable people who can't fill things out online to be able to transmit their information,” he said.

“Obviously, the situation right now is extremely fluid,” he added. “The Taliban has, has taken control of approaches to the airport, which is making it extremely difficult for people to get to the airport in order to get out. And that is something that we continue to work on.”

The government also announced last week that Canada would accept 20,000 Afghans who have already fled the country and are now languishing in refugee camps or other places. Those Afghans are separate from the former interpreters still stuck in the country.

Veterans and opposition parties have accused the government of having been slow to help the former interpreters in recent months despite knowing the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan since the spring.

The speed of the Taliban’s takeover nonetheless caught many by surprise, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan has cast a long shadow over the federal election campaign launched on Sunday.

Andrew Rusk, the founder of a national advocacy campaign to bring interpreters and local staff to Canada, has said his group is aware of at least 2,000 individuals still in Afghanistan waiting to be evacuated.

Afghans rushed to the Kabul airport Monday as thousands tried to flee after the Taliban seized power. Some clung to the side of a U.S. military plane before takeoff, in a widely shared video that captured the sense of desperation as America's 20-year war comes to a chaotic end.

Senior U.S. military officials said the chaos at the Kabul airport left seven people dead, including some who fell from a departing American military transport jet.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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