Australia’s first rescue flight from Afghanistan has arrived safely back in the United Arab Emirates with just 26 people on board.
It is the first rescue flight by an RAAF C-130 Hercules, which evacuated people from Kabul airport, where there has been days of chaos.
The flight brought 26 people to the UAE, including Australian citizens, Afghan nationals who hold visas and one foreign official working with an international agency.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said efforts to extract Australians and Afghans who helped allied forces in the past two decades would ramp up in subsequent flights.
“This is not a simple process,” he said in Canberra on Wednesday.
“It’s very difficult for any Australian to imagine the sense of chaos and uncertainty that is existing across this country, the breakdown in formal communications, the ability to reach people.”
The plane flew into Afghanistan late on Tuesday and was back in the United Arab Emirates by 11.45am Wednesday (AEST).
Regular flights are scheduled from the UAE military base in coming days. But poor weather forecast may hamper evacuation efforts.
Cabinet’s national security committee is meeting daily to discuss evacuation plans from the war-torn nation, which is under Taliban control.
Mr Morrison has conceded not all Afghans who helped Australia will be rescued as part of the operation.
The first flight dropped off key foreign affairs, home affairs and defence personnel to facilitate the evacuation of Australian citizens and permanent residents, as well as Afghan nationals.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said Australian officials were on the ground in Kabul. But people heading to the airport were having to negotiate Taliban checkpoints.
“Yesterday there were multiple kilometre-long traffic queues outside the airport. At one point people were having to be lifted over gates into the airport. It is extremely challenging,” she said.
“[It] is obviously a very complex and fluid environment, with a whole range of security issues.”
Australia was working with the US and Britain, as well as other countries, to try to get around security challenges, Senator Payne said.
Australia will provide 3000 humanitarian visas this financial year to Afghan refugees desperately trying to flee the Taliban.
That will come from the existing intake, rather than a special allocation, and is below other nations’ commitments.
Canada has offered resettlement to more than 20,000 people at risk and the United States is accelerating its visa application process.
In 2015, the Abbott government granted 12,000 humanitarian visas to people in Syria on top of Australia’s regular humanitarian program.
Mr Morrison said Australia would offer visas only through official channels after security and health checks.
“Those who have not come to Australia in the right way and on temporary visas in Australia, they will not be offered permanent residence in Australia,” he said.
Australia has committed 250 troops and several military planes to the Afghanistan evacuation effort, with hopes of extracting about 600 people.
Elsewhere, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have agreed to hold a virtual G7 leaders’ meeting next week to discuss a common strategy and approach to the escalating crisis in Afghanistan, the White House said on Wednesday.
The leaders “discussed the need for continued close co-ordination among allies and democratic partners on Afghanistan policy going forward, including ways the global community can provide further humanitarian assistance and support for refugees and other vulnerable Afghans”, the White House said in a statement.