Hundreds queue for passports in bid to leave Afghanistan

Hundreds of people have braved sub-zero temperatures in Afghanistan’s capital to queue outside the passport office, a day after the Taliban government announced it would resume issuing travel documents.

Many began their wait the previous night and most stood patiently in single file – some desperate to leave the country for medical treatment, others to escape the Islamists’ renewed rule.

Tense Taliban personnel periodically charged crowds that formed at the front of the queue and at a nearby roadblock.

“We don’t want any suicide attack or explosion to happen,” said Taliban security operative Ajmal Toofan, 22, expressing concerns about the dangers of crowding.

The local branch of the Islamic State group, the Taliban’s principal enemy, killed more than 150 people in late August when citizens massed at Kabul airport in a desperate bid to leave during the early days of the new regime.

“Our responsibility here is to protect people,” Toofan added, his gun pointed towards the ground. “But the people are not cooperating.”

He spoke to AFP as one of his colleagues pushed a man, who then fell headlong just short of a coil of barbed wire.

Mohammed Osman Akbari, 60, said he was urgently trying to reach Pakistan, because dilapidated hospitals at home were unable to complete his heart surgery. Medics “put springs in my heart”, he said, referring to a stent. “They need to be removed and it’s not possible here.”

Nearby, ambulances containing people too sick to queue were parked at the side of the road. “The patient has a heart problem,” said ambulance driver Muslim Fakhri, 21, referring to a 43-year-old man lying on a stretcher inside his vehicle.

An applicant has to be present to ensure the passport is issued, he explained.

The Taliban initially stopped issuing passports shortly after their return to power, which came as the previous, western-backed regime imploded in the final stages of a US military withdrawal.

In October, authorities reopened the passport office in Kabul only to suspend work days later as a flood of applications caused the biometric equipment to break down.

The office said Saturday that the issue has been resolved and people whose applications were already being processed could get their documents.

Mursal Rasooli, 26, said she was happy to hear the news. “The situation here is not peaceful,” she told AFP, hugging her two-year-old daughter Bibi Hawa to protect her against the biting cold.

“If the situation gets worse than this, then we have the passport” and can flee, she said.

Her husband is in Iran because he could not find work here, she added, before expressing concern about skyrocketing prices and a lack of jobs and education for women and girls.

Issuing passports – and allowing people to leave amid a humanitarian crisis the UN has called an “avalanche of hunger” – is seen as a test of the Taliban’s commitment to the international community.

The Taliban are meanwhile pressing donors to restore billions of dollars in aid that was suspended when they came to power.

Local musician Omid Naseer, sporting a leather jacket, short beard and unkempt hair, was desperate to leave. For “months now, since the Taliban came [to power], we’ve had no work”, he said.

“The artists are most vulnerable, but no one cares.”

Meanwhile, a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad brought together dozens of foreign ministers with the special representatives on Afghanistan of major powers, including China, the US and Russia.

The one-day summit of foreign ministers from dozens of Islamic countries also included the UN undersecretary general on humanitarian affairs as well as the president of the Islamic Development Bank, Muhammad Sulaiman al-Jasser, who offered several concrete financing proposals. He said the IDB could manage trusts that could be used to move money into Afghanistan, jumpstart businesses and help salvage the deeply troubled economy.

The dire warnings called for the US and other nations to ease sanctions, including the release of more than $10bn in frozen funds following the Taliban takeover of Kabul on 15 August.

Speakers also called for a quick opening of the country’s banking system and collectively, with the United Nations and international banking institutions, assistance to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, directed his remarks to the US, urging Washington to drop preconditions to releasing desperately needed funds and restarting Afghanistan’s banking systems.

Khan seemed to offer Taliban a pass on the limits on education for girls, urging the world to understand “cultural sensitivities” and saying human rights and women’s rights meant different things in different countries. Other speakers, including the OIC chairman, Hussain Ibrahim Taha, emphasised the need for the protection of human rights, particularly those of women and girls.

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