The ruling Taliban in Afghanistan have warned neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan of "consequences" in case they fail to return the Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters that were flown into their territories by fleeing pilots during the U.S. military exit in August last year.
Dozens of Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters, including A-29 light attack planes and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, were flown out of Afghanistan as the country's ground forces collapsed and the Taliban swept to power.
All Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters "taken abroad must be returned... (without) testing our patience," Taliban Defense Minister Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoob Mujahid said in his speech at an Afghan Air Force event in Kabul on Tuesday.
"I respectfully call on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan not to test our patience and not to force us to take all possible retaliatory steps to retake the aircraft," the Afghan official was quoted as saying by TOLO News.
In his speech, the Taliban official said all the pilots and flight engineers who had fled the country were welcome to return to Afghanistan. He described the pilots as heroes.
"They wouldn't be honored in foreign countries. We will honor them. They are the treasure of our country," the Taliban minister said in his Tuesday speech.
As many as 40 helicopters were flown out of Afghan territory into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan during the hasty withdrawal of US-led Allied Forces, Yaqoob Mujahid informed.
Afghanistan had over 164 active military warplanes before the US withdrawal and now there are only 81 left in the country, according to the Defense Ministry reports cited by TOLO.
Afghan pilots flown out of Tajikistan by US
In November last, the ABC News reported that around 150 former Afghan Air Force pilots and personnel, who were trapped in Tajikistan for months after fleeing Afghanistan, have been airlifted by the United States out of the country to the United Arab Emirates.
The pilots had spent nearly three months in detention in Tajikistan after they used their military aircraft to fly to Afghanistan's northern neighbor as the Taliban seized Kabul in August. But some of the pilots found themselves in a frightening limbo, detained in a hotel complex by Tajikistan's authorities, where they said they spent weeks held largely incommunicado and unsure if they might be sent back to the Taliban.
The pilots were taken to the airport in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe by staff from the U.S. embassy last Tuesday and put on a charter flight to Dubai, according to the pilots and Department of Defense. There, the evacuees were placed in quarantine in a hotel and are now beginning the process of being assessed for resettlement to the U.S. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the pilots were evacuated as part of a group of approximately 191 Afghans.
The evacuation occurred as the U.S. continued to wrestle with the colossal task of resettling tens of thousands of Afghans who served the U.S. and Afghanistan's toppled American-backed government and who are now at risk of mistreatment or execution by the Taliban.
"It's just a huge relief," said David Hicks, a former brigadier general and CEO of Sacred Promise, a nongovernmental organization run by current and ex-U.S. military officers that have been working on getting the pilots out. "The team is tremendously relieved and happy to have those individuals out and moving onto their next step to freedom."