Britain’s civilian evacuation mission in Afghanistan will end later on Saturday, the head of the armed forces has said.
Speaking in the morning ahead of the final day of airlifts General Sir Nick Carter said “very few” civilian evacuation flights were still taking place.
“We’re reaching the end of the evacuation, which will take place during the course of today. And then it will be necessary to bring our troops out on the remaining aircraft,” he told the BBC.
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“We haven’t been able to bring everyone out, and that has been heart-breaking. And there have been some very challenging judgements that have had to be made on the ground.”
But the armed forces head insisted that the final stages were “going according to plan”, as opposition parties warned Britain’s “failure” in Afghanistan would be seen as a “betrayal”.
Shadow defence secretary John Healey said he expected all remaining British troops, who are facilitating the evacuation, to be withdrawn from the country within 24 hours.
The Labour MP said the operation had been “very dangerous and desperate” as he praised the troops involved.
But he told Sky News: “This is the brutal truth, despite getting more than 14,000 people out, there are probably 1,000 Afghans who have worked with us over two decades in Afghanistan, helped our troops, our aid workers, our diplomats, that we promised to protect, but we’re leaving behind.
“And I know those troops in particular will feel our failure on this as a country is a betrayal of many of those who risked their own lives to work alongside us.
“And I think what’s important now is that we may be giving up the airport, but we cannot give up on the Afghan people or fighting to try and protect the gains that they and our troops and our diplomats and aid workers have worked so hard over two decades to gain in Afghanistan.”
Boris Johnson on Friday night spoke of his “great sense of regret” at those left behind. He said: “Of course, as we come down to the final hours of the operation there will sadly be people who haven’t got through, people who might qualify.”
The prime minister added he would “shift heaven and earth” and “use all the leverage we have with the Taliban” to secure safe passage for Afghans whose service makes them the target for reprisals. But there was no indication of any further UK efforts to remove people from the country itself after the last British troops leave this weekend.
It came as Conservative chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, former soldier Tom Tugendhat, warned of the risk of the “biggest hostage crisis the UK has ever seen” if interpreters and other staff, as well as remaining British citizens, are held by the Taliban, telling Sky News: “This is what defeat looks like.”
Speaking on Saturday Mr Tugendhat has described the UK’s efforts to withdraw people from Afghanistan as a “sprint finish after a not exactly sprint start”.
Asked whether he could have done better, he told BBC Breakfast: “In the last week, probably not, but this has been a sprint finish after a not exactly sprint start.
“There’s been many of us giving pressure to improve the processing of people who we think we have a duty of care to over the months and years.
“There are going to be questions to be asked to the Foreign Secretary about the processing in the UK in recent weeks that we’re going to have to see what the answers are.
“I’m sure that the Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary are all looking at this very carefully. I know, because I spoke to all three in the last 12 hours, that they are really doing their best to get this last level of processing done.”
He added: “For those of us who have been working 24/7 for the best part of the last several weeks trying to get as many people who stood by us out, this has been a very difficult time.
“We’ll certainly be looking backwards, as well as forwards, because if this were ever to happen again we need to make sure that we do not find ourselves leaving hundreds, possibly even thousands, of people behind.”
Three British nationals were reportedly among more than 180 victims killed in Thursday’s terror attack on Kabul airport.
The deaths of two adults and the child of a third Briton were announced by foreign secretary Dominic Raab on Friday evening as the RAF completed its evacuation of 13,708 people from Afghanistan ahead of the 31 August deadline for foreign forces to leave the country.
The three UK fatalities are believed to have been among crowds of thousands queuing outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in the desperate hope of securing a place on one of the last evacuation flights. A further two British nationals, including a child of under 10, were being evacuated after being injured in the blast, claimed by Islamic State.