27 Aug 2021

Kabul attack: Final evacuation flight had left ahead of bombing - PM

2:18 pm on 27 August 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the final New Zealand Defence Force evacuation flight from Afghanistan landed back in the United Arab Emirates last night, before the explosions at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Watch the PM and Defence Force speaking here:

One hundred people, including New Zealanders and Australians, were on the flight. It's not yet clear how many of those people are destined for New Zealand.

So far, 276 New Zealand nationals and permanent residents, their families, and other visa holders have been evacuated.

There were no New Zealand Defence Force personnel in Kabul and no New Zealand evacuees at the airport at the time of the explosions.

Ardern described the attacks as "appalling" and said the country's thoughts are with all of those in Afghanistan who have been killed or injured.

"We strongly condemn what is a despicable attack on many innocent families and individuals who were simply seeking safety from the incredibly difficult and fragile situation in Afghanistan," she said in a statement.

Ardern said the window for evacuating people "has now closed" with the attack.

There is an ongoing and very high threat of a terrorist attack in Kabul, she said, and New Zealand is ending further flights into the city.

She said they had hoped the time joint forces had for evacuating people would have been longer.

Ardern said at the moment, most of the international partners are now withdrawing from the county. Air Marshall Kevin Short said eight other nations were also withdrawing yesterday and another four are continuing to withdraw today.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade remains in close contact with New Zealand citizens and permanent residents in Afghanistan who had previously registered on SafeTravel or otherwise made contact.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta told Midday Report New Zealand had passed condolences on to security forces who had lost personnel.

She said not everyone who was eligible would have been able to get to the airport, or may not have been able to be evacuated in the time available.

Ardern said the government has not given any advice to people about crossing land borders. She said New Zealand advised people to flee Kabul airport yesterday in the face of the terror threat, but it is not certain how many people listened to that advice.

She cannot yet give a further breakdown of how many of the evacuees were New Zealand citizens, residents or on visas.

Her advice to those who are still in Afghanistan is that New Zealand will continue to be in contact with them.

"We knew that we were going into a complex and dangerous situation, and have continued to act as such."

Yesterday, all those known to have been in Afghanistan were advised by MFAT of the "ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack" and warned not to go to Hamid Karzai International Airport and to leave the airport if they were nearby.

At this stage, there have been no requests for assistance from New Zealanders or other visa holders in Afghanistan related to the explosion. MFAT are trying to contact all those known to be in the region.

Ardern said the situation at Kabul's airport had been so difficult for both people trying to get out, and those undertaking the evacuations that there would be no more flights into the city.

Over the course of the mission, the NZDF aircraft was able to undertake three flights out of Kabul and had successfully brought out hundreds of evacuees who are destined for both New Zealand and Australia.

Australia also brought out a number of those destined for New Zealand.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare said as well as those who have already arrived in the country, more people eligible for relocation are in transit. Some are being processed at bases outside Afghanistan, so it is still too early to know the total numbers of people who will be returned to Aotearoa, he said.

Ardern said those who remained were in an incredibly difficult position.

"The situation in Afghanistan is incredibly complex and fragile and continues to change rapidly. Our next job is to consider what can be done for those who remain in Afghanistan still. That will not be a quick or easy task."

Air Marshall Short said the reason the last flight was yesterday was because of a risk assessment of the terror threat at the time, and that flight left eight hours ahead of the blast.

Ardern said the people on the ground were being proactively contacted and told of an ongoing terrorist threat at the airport.

"Everyone we had inside the boundaries of the airport, we took with us," she said.

She said the situation deteriorated much faster than anyone anticipated including those who were in Afghanistan.

Air Marshall Short said the military had evacuation flights arriving in Kabul within days of civilian flights stopping.

Ardern said it's worth pointing out that it has been publicly reported that a number of prisons in Afghanistan have been opened up and those detained - including both Taliban and ISIS members - have been released.

"The situation is both dangerous and volatile," she said.

She said "certainly" more visas were granted than New Zealand had been able to evacuate.

Air Marshall Short said a foreign affairs representative working in Tehran was talking to Afghan nationals on the ground and having them identify themselves by taking photographs of themselves. People on the ground in Kabul were then able to go into the crowd and find those people, he said.

He said there had been at least another two flights planned: "But we were working as far as the military and other agencies saying 'this is the last flight'."

There was a scheduling process because of limited ramp space at Kabul, he said, and planes had a maximum of 90 minutes on the ground to be able to make space for the next flight. The three flights New Zealand was able to carry out was what fit into the schedule, he said.

He said New Zealand spent 20 years training and equipping the Afghanistan military and he believes it is a surprise to everyone just how quickly they folded to the Taliban forces.

Ardern praised those Defence Force personnel who undertook the mission.

She also thanked New Zealand's partners, especially Australia, the US and the United Arab Emirates.

It has not yet been confirmed when NZDF personnel and the C-130 aircraft will arrive back in New Zealand.

'Information's coming in pretty thick and fast' - Henare

Henare told RNZ's Nine to Noon the government did not know for sure that none of the people New Zealand had been trying to evacuate had not been caught up in the blast.

"We know that information's coming in pretty thick and fast. We can confirm at this point in time that no New Zealanders have been directly caught up in the explosion but of course .... we're trying to ascertain whether or not there were any impacted.

"It's been a rather tricky situation in Afghanistan and myself, the Prime Minister and Minister [of Foreign Affairs Nanaia] Mahuta have been keeping close contact with the people on the ground.

"The events this morning reiterated, one, the importance of the work we're doing but, two, just the dangerous situation our people found themselves in."

He said there was a lot of work to be done to process the evacuees.

Cabinet would in time turn its attention to those who were not able to be evacuated, he said, and the government was working on trying to figure out how many New Zealanders were in that group.

"That's the number that we're working on at the moment, so as we've processed the people that have been evacuated, we're trying to match those numbers up with the list of names that we do have."

He said he was confident the prime minister would be able to announce those figures soon, and also they could not yet give an estimate on how many of the evacuees were expected to come to New Zealand.

After US President Joe Biden's statement about the attack, that those responsible would be hunted down and made to pay, Henare said he did not want to interpret the president's words.

"We're focused on our job right now... Cabinet will make decisions in the very near future."

Attack 'devastating' - Collins

National's leader Judith Collins said the terror attack was devastating.

"It is an extraordinarily dreadful thing to happen. These people have been trying to get other people to safety, and have been taken out in a very cowardly and despicable attack," she said.

It would be particularly devastating for Afghan nationals who had been hoping New Zealand could get them out, she said.

"We've got some out, and I've been assured by the Prime Minister that we've got the New Zealanders that we know of out, but there may well be others there."

She said the visas for Afghans who had helped New Zealand, and their families, had been tied up for months and Immigration NZ should have been quicker in handling them.

"Otherwise they are targets for the Taliban and other radical groups."

She was pleased the Defence Force had suffered no casualties in the attack, and while it was important to assist where possible she did not want them put at further risk.

New Zealand also needed to consider taking in other Afghan refugees, she said.

In a statement, she called for the government to urgently step up plans to evacuate New Zealand's Afghan allies.