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Taliban Rows Back Comments Saying Afghans Barred From Leaving


Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The Taliban's chief spokesman on March 1 rowed back comments he made suggesting Afghans would be barred from leaving the country, saying he had been misunderstood.

Zabihullah Mujahid sparked alarm over the weekend when he told a press conference that Afghans would need "an excuse" to travel abroad and confirmed Afghanistan's new rulers had put a stop to any more evacuation flights.

After seizing power in August, the Taliban promised Afghan citizens would be allowed to come and go as they pleased -- as long as they had passports and visas for their destinations.

But on February 27, he told a press conference: "I have to say clearly that persons who leave the country along with their families and have no excuse...we are preventing them."

On March 1, he tweeted that his "meaning" was: "Our compatriots who have legal documents and invitations can travel outside the country and can return to the country confidently."

The Taliban's deputy minister for refugees and repatriations, however, said on March 1 it was "not appropriate" for Western nations to invite Afghans abroad or facilitate their departure.

"To a larger extent, the international community is interfering in Afghanistan's affairs and are inviting people promising asylum," Mohammad Arsala Kharutai told a press conference. "This is interference and against international law, and we condemn it."

Mujahid's February 27 announcement alarmed many Afghans who have been promised asylum abroad after working with U.S.-led foreign forces or other Western organisations during the Taliban's 20-year insurgency.

More than 120,000 Afghans and dual nationals were evacuated up to August 31 when the last U.S.-led troops withdrew, two weeks after the hard-line Islamists seized Kabul.

Thousands with similar links remain in Afghanistan, however, desperate to leave and fearful they may be targeted by the Taliban as collaborators.

The last official evacuation by air was on December 1 although organized road convoys to Pakistan have taken place as recently as last week.

Hugo Shorter, Britain's top envoy to Afghanistan based outside the country, said barring Afghans from leaving amounted to "unacceptable restrictions on freedom of movement."

"I call on the Taliban to clarify their remarks urgently," he tweeted. "The world is still watching the Taliban's behaviour."

In Washington, the State Department said the Taliban had a commitment to allowing free passage, and that the United States continues to try to facilitate the exit of U.S. citizens and eligible Afghan allies who want to leave.

"We will continue to engage diplomatically to resolve any issues and to hold the Taliban to their public pledge to let all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorisation from other countries to freely depart Afghanistan," a department spokesperson said.

"Our ability to facilitate relocation for our Afghan allies depends on the Taliban living up to its commitment of free passage. We have repeatedly reiterated this point to them."

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