Ministers warned of humanitarian and animal-welfare disaster with team low down priority list
Ministers will have blood on their hands if Pen Farthing’s staff are barred from escaping the Taliban in Afghanistan and his animals die in the searing heat inside crates, supporters of the charity director have claimed.
The founder of the Nowzad animal-rescue group has been at Kabul airport with his colleagues and 173 dogs and cats desperately trying to get on a flight out of the country.
The team were caught in the chaotic aftermath of a suicide attack at the airport while they waited.
“We’re fine but everything is chaos here,” he said. “All of a sudden we heard gunshots and our vehicle was targeted, had our driver not turned around he would have been shot in the head by a man with an AK-47.”
UK and US troops, who control the gates into the airport, cannot let Mr Farthing’s team through for a flight because they are not on a UK government priority list.
British citizens are deemed top priority for being airlifted out, followed closely by Afghans who have given vital support to UK troops in the country.
As public calls for the Nowzad team to be saved mounted this week, defence secretary Ben Wallace was forced to U-turn and give permission in principle for the team to be processed and leave on their charter flight back to the UK.
After arriving at the airport overnight and waiting 10 hours, Mr Farthing, a former royal marine, begged Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s spokesman, to let him through. Within hours it emerged the Islamist militant group had agreed, but that British soldiers were allegedly making the team wait.
Iain McGill, a vet advising the Nowzad team and part of what has been dubbed Operation Ark, warned there would be a humanitarian and animal-welfare disaster if the gates weren’t opened, and dogs could suffocate.
He said: “I’m very concerned for the welfare of those 69 people in the Nowzad trucks, mostly women, including 26 children, and of course Pen himself – but a newborn child too, and that is the priority.
“But those animals should have been in the airport a long time ago.
“They are at risk of heat stroke, dehydration, and it was agreed by government that if Pen got to that airport with staff and animals, they would be allowed access for their plane.
“We really do need to get them out of the trucks and into the airport as fast as practicably possible, and without delay, on welfare grounds.”
Actor and animal rights activist Peter Egan told ministers: “Your procrastination is causing a humanitarian disaster! Do your job get them safe.”
Boris Johnson, when asked whether he or his wife Carrie had been involved, said: “I’ve had absolutely no influence on any particular case, nor would that be right – that’s not how we do things in this country.
“But what I can certainly say is that … thanks to this extraordinary operation, we’ve helped the overwhelming majority of people in both the categories, and we’re going to use the remaining time to do as many more as we possibly can. But as I keep saying, that’s not the end of the story.”
At the same time, another animal-rescue charity in Afghanistan is also racing to organise a flight out for its animals and 150 staff.
Kabul Small Animal Rescue has been fundraising for a cargo plane to airlift more than 200 dogs and cats, staff and their families out of the country.
The charity said it had secured a flight but that the airport chaos would be an obstacle.
Nowzad staff took enough food to keep the animals fed during the journey, and sprayed them with water to survive the heat of up to 40C.
Mr Farthing and his team insist they are not prioritising animals over people for rescue but are saving them in addition to people, as crates will go in the aircraft hold.
But some critics say the flight would take runway space, which is limited during the scramble to get thousands of people out of the Afghan capital before Tuesday’s deadline when US troops pull out.
Dominic Dyer, an activist supporter, told The Independent the situation in Kabul was shambolic and deteriorating by the hour.
“The airport is complete chaos,” he said. “You couldn’t choose a worse place in the world to try to get people out of. But am I confident we can still get this done? Yes, but only because of who Pen is and the publicity around this.”
People were forced to walk through raw sewage because there were no facilities for those queuing at the airport, he said. “There’s a risk of typhoid and cholera. The whole thing is horrendous.”
The chartered plane was due to leave the UK within hours for Kabul, but if the team are denied access to the airport, the animals will die and his staff will be trapped in the country at the Taliban’s mercy, he said.
The Independent has asked the Ministry of Defence to comment.