UK boosts efforts to help people flee over Afghan border amid tensions with US

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UK and Afghan nationals will be offered extra help to escape Afghanistan over land borders following the conclusion of the emergency airlift, the Government has said.

Fifteen crisis response specialists are being deployed to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to assist British diplomats in their work to allow people to reach the UK.

They are expected to arrive within the next 48 hours, with the focus on helping UK nationals, interpreters and other Afghans who were employed by the UK, and those Afghans judged most at risk.

The announcement came as US President Joe Biden defended his decision to set a deadline of August 31 to withdraw from Afghanistan, despite people who need help remaining in the country.

Downing Street also flatly denied pressuring the US to keep open the Kabul airport gate near where a deadly terror attack was launched, following a leak from the Pentagon that threatened to strain relations.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted it was “just not true” to suggest the UK called for the gate to be held open in order to continue British evacuations at the site where a suicide bombing killed more than 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops.

The Cabinet minister added the number of UK nationals left behind in Afghanistan was in the “low hundreds” on Tuesday following the end of two decades of western military presence in the country.

But he was unable to give a “definitive” figure on how many Afghans the UK had failed to airlift to safety after the Taliban seized power as the US withdrew its final troops.

On the deployment of three teams to bolster efforts to help people cross the Afghan border, Mr Raab said: “The UK evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan over the past fortnight, but we know not everyone who wanted to leave and were eligible for UK support could.

“We will stand by them, and we’re working with partners in neighbouring countries to support onward travel to the UK.

“These latest rapid deployment teams will bolster those efforts and reinforce our embassy teams on the ground to help those in need.”

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A strain in relations between London and Washington was threatened when the Politico website reported leaked notes from the Pentagon suggesting US commanders planned to close Abbey Gate by Thursday afternoon, Kabul time, amid intelligence of an imminent terror attack.

But it was alleged that the Americans decided to keep the gate open for longer to allow Britain to continue its own evacuation effort.

Scores of Afghans, 13 US service personnel, two Britons and the child of a British national died in a bombing carried out by Isis-K, an Afghan offshoot of the so-called Islamic State group.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s simply not true to suggest that we pushed to keep the gate open.

“In response to the change in travel advice ahead of the attack last week, the UK moved operations out of the Baron Hotel.”

Asked about the state of transatlantic relations, he said: “The US continues to be our strongest ally.”

No 10 also insisted Boris Johnson has “full confidence” in Mr Raab after reports suggesting he will be “toast” at the next Cabinet reshuffle, and would be moved away from his role as Foreign Secretary amid mounting criticism.

Some of the ire was for remaining in holiday in Crete as the Taliban was seizing back control of Afghanistan.

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On Wednesday, Mr Raab will be questioned about the Government’s Afghanistan policy by MPs on the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said Mr Raab has questions to answer on “much more than the chaos of the last two weeks”, and accused the Government of “complacency and indifference”.

She said: “This has been the biggest foreign policy failing in a generation.

“The Foreign Secretary has serious questions to answer when he appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee.”

Ms Nandy added: “The Foreign Secretary had 18 months to prepare but was missing in action.

“As a result, on his watch Britain has become weaker in the world and faces greater risks from terrorism.”

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The final US troops left Kabul on a flight shortly before midnight local time on Monday, ahead of Mr Biden’s deadline to withdraw before the end of August.

The Taliban proclaimed “full independence” for Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.

Mr Biden, speaking after the withdrawal, said on Tuesday: “I was not going to extend this forever war and I was not extending a forever exit.”

He said there will be ongoing efforts in Afghanistan to reopen the airport in Kabul, adding: “As well as overland routes, allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.”

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