WASHINGTON: The first flight carrying Afghans who worked as interpreters for the US has arrived in America, President Joe Biden said Friday, the start of an operation to evacuate thousands from possible Taliban retaliation.
Around 20,000 Afghans worked for the US following the 2001 invasion in the wake of the September 11 attacks and have applied for evacuation under the State Department's so-called Special Immigrant Visas programme, reports AFP.
Many of them fear retaliation from the Taliban, which has secured a vast swath of the country since foreign troops began the last stage of a withdrawal due to be complete by late August.
"Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan," Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
Russ Travers, an official on the White House National Security Council, said the first arrivals -- numbering around 200 -- will complete health checks and other processing before being sent to new homes across the country.
"They have all completed rigorous security background checks conducted by the intelligence community, and the departments of state and homeland security," Travers said.
Tracey Jacobson, the State Department's Afghanistan Task Force director, said the arrivals would be taken to the Fort Lee military base near Petersburg, Virginia.
"We will also be offering those vaccines at Fort Lee."
Then, with the help of the UN International Organization for Migration, they will be sent to new homes -- either with relatives already in the US, or arranged by the IOM and State Department.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday reiterated Washington's pledge to the locals who worked for the US mission in Afghanistan.
"(The) US is committed to helping those who helped us during hard times in Afghanistan over the last 20 years -- translators and interpreters," Blinken said during a visit to Kuwait.
Officials said it will take time to vet each applicant and their family.
"We absolutely intend to continue this program after the pullout of troops" on August 31, Jacobson said.
"We're going to be moving folks as fast as we logistically can," she added.
Jacobson said Washington is weighing how to help Afghans who do not qualify for the program but also face particular threats -- such as women leaders, human rights activists and journalists.
"The administration is considering a variety of different options," she said.
The US Congress on Thursday unanimously passed a measure that provides $1.1 billion to fund the resettlement of Afghans who supported the US mission.
It now heads to the House, where it is expected to win approval and receive President Biden's signature.