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'Kabul rescue mission was miracle'

A South Korean Air Force special forces agent greeting an Afghan family at the Kabul airport on Thursday. (Yonhap)
A South Korean Air Force special forces agent greeting an Afghan family at the Kabul airport on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Evacuating almost 400 Afghan allies and their families from Afghanistan was nothing short of miracle, a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said Thursday, hinting that there were no more rescue missions possible with just days left before an Aug. 31 deadline for the US withdrawal.

“If we had failed to mobilize buses at the last minute, only 26 people could have made it to the airport,” President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for public communications, Park Soo-hyun, said in a radio interview.

His remarks came ahead of the pending arrival of a total 390 of Afghan evacuees in Seoul later in the day. The government deployed three military jets to Afghanistan on Monday to fly them out of the country.

They were support staff for Korea’s development work there and their families, including some 100 children under five. Having worked for the Korean government for years, they are now at the high risk of Taliban reprisals.

According to Park, the government started discussions about the rescue plan from early this month after the US announced its complete withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.

“At first, we thought there was enough time to prepare but the situation was changing rapidly in recent weeks,” he said, referring to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on Aug. 14.

Reaching the airport was the most difficult part because it was nearly impossible for individuals to pass through Taliban checkpoints set up on roads to the airport.

Then, the embassy staff came up with the idea of using buses that have been closely working with American forces. They rented six buses and dispatched them throughout Kabul to transport the Afghan allies, with a flurry of emails offering to rescue them.

“Thankfully, our contact network worked well,” Park said, noting that many countries struggled to locate and contact their Afghan co-workers, so some flights had to leave the country with less than 10 passengers.

Upon arriving here, the evacuees will stay at a government-designated facility in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, for six to eight weeks, during which time they will undergo a mandatory two-week self-quarantine.

They will not be entering Korea as refugees, but as “persons of special merit” who are eligible for a visa extension. It is still unclear whether the evacuees will want to settle in Korea or move on to other countries.

Park, however, was skeptical of a new rescue mission in Kabul amid the ever-changing situation there, with the Aug. 31 deadline approaching rapidly. 

“I may have limited information about that but I’m skeptical about the idea. We did our best to ensure all the Afghan allies are rescued safely,” he added.

By Lee Ji-yoon (