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Taliban row back comments saying Afghans barred from leaving

Kabul: The Taliban’s chief spokesman on Tuesday rowed back comments he made suggesting Afghans would be barred from leaving the country, saying he had been misunderstood.

Zabihullah Mujahid sparked alarm at 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 Sunday, 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 Tuesday, 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 Tuesday 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 Sunday announcement alarmed many Afghans who have been promised asylum abroad after working with US-led foreign forces or other Western organizations during the Taliban’s 20-year insurgency.

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

Thousands with similar links are still 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, but 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 behavior.”

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 US 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 authorization 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.”