Israeli aid workers and the United Arab Emirates have completed a daring rescue mission that saw dozens of sportswomen, female rights activists and a singer at risk of Taliban reprisals spirited to safety in Abu Dhabi.
The nail-biting evacuation used local contacts to gather 41 Afghans from various locations in Kabul and then bus them through Taliban checkpoints and over the northern border into Tajikistan before flying them to the UAE.
The Israeli-Emirati mission, which happened earlier this month, is the first joint humanitarian project between the two Middle East countries and is part of growing cooperation following the signing of the Abraham Accords last year, which normalised relations.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Yotam Polizer, the CEO of IsraAID, said the team behind the secretive evacuation had to be extremely careful while collecting the young women from across Kabul without alerting the Taliban.
"The issue was they had to collect them from hiding," Mr Polizer said. "They [the rescuers] had to do rounds around the city in alleys to pick up these people and try not to create any suspicious movement."
The evacuees included a prominent Afghan singer, 19 cycling team members, three robotics team members, their relatives and a number of human rights activists. Some of the relatives evacuated were men.
After clearing several checkpoints while driving across the country’s north, the escapees were temporarily stuck at the Tajikistan border, forcing the young women to spend a tantalising two-day period in a nearby safe house as they awaited permission to cross.
"The stressful part really was around the border, there were a lot of Taliban in the area, they were not allowed to leave the shelter and we were very stressed that someone might find them," Mr Polizer said.
The rescue team eventually secured permission from the president of Tajikistan to cross the border, at which point Israeli aid workers met the girls in the capital of Dushanbe.
They were then escorted onto a jet chartered by Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams, which arrived in the UAE in the early hours of Sept 6.
Mr Adams also helped in lobbying Tajikistan's government, among others, to support the rescue.
The operation was highly politically sensitive, as the Taliban despises Israel and recently said it was the only country with which its government would not form relations.
The evacuees were picked with the help of female activists who reached out to his aid group and the mission was partly assisted by an anonymous family foundation
The rescue was first revealed by Afra Al Hameli, the UAE's deputy director of strategic communications, in a post on Twitter.
Working alongside international partners 🇦🇪🇮🇱🇨🇦 to ensure that those in need may reach safety, the #UAE has welcomed 41 #Afghan🇦🇫 evacuees, including vulnerable members from the Afghan girls’ cycling &robotic teams, as well as at-risk human rights activists &their family members. pic.twitter.com/4k0Sbgg7EJ
— Afra Al Hameli (@AfraMalHameli) September 6, 2021
"Working alongside international partners to ensure that those in need may reach safety, the #UAE has welcomed 41 #Afghan evacuees, including vulnerable members from the Afghan girls’ cycling & robotic teams, as well as at-risk human rights activists & their family members," she wrote on Sept 6, including emojis of the Israeli, Canadian and Emirati flags.
Emirati officials say that their new relationship with Israel will secure around $1tn ($740bn) in trade deals over the next decade.
The two countries also have similar security interests, in particular their concerns about Iran and its proxies increasing its presence in the Middle East.
It is not the first mission to rescue members of Afghanistan's robotics teams from the war-torn country. Nine other members of the team, which won a US robotics award in 2017, were recently evacuated to Qatar.