Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has suspended flights to Kabul after what it called heavy-handed interference by Taliban authorities.
The suspension on Thursday took place as the Taliban government ordered the airline, the only international carrier operating regularly out of the Afghan capital, to cut ticket prices to the levels of before the fall of the Western-backed Afghan government in August.
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“Our flights frequently faced undue delays because of the unprofessional attitude of the Kabul aviation authorities,” Abdullah Hafeez Khan, the PIA spokesman told the AFP news agency.
The route will remain suspended until “the situation becomes conducive,” he added.
A source at the airline told AFP that Taliban officials were often “derogatory” and on one occasion “physically manhandled” a staff member.
Earlier, the Taliban warned PIA and Afghan carrier Kam Air that their Afghan operations risked being blocked unless they agreed to cut prices that have spiralled out of the reach of most Afghans.
With most airlines no longer flying to Afghanistan, tickets for flights to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, have been selling for as much as $2,500 on PIA, according to travel agents in Kabul, compared with $120-$150 before.
The Afghan transport ministry said in a statement that prices on the route should “be adjusted to correspond with the conditions of a ticket before the victory of the Islamic Emirate” or the flights would be stopped.
It urged passengers and others to report any violations.
Flights between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been severely limited since Kabul airport was reopened last month in the wake of the chaotic evacuation of more than 100,000 Westerners and vulnerable Afghans after the Taliban took over Afghanistan following swift battleground victories.
Abdullah, a 26-year-old employee of a pharmaceuticals company, said the PIA flights had been “a tiny window” for Afghans trying to leave the country.
“We are in bad need of these flights. The borders are closed, now if the airport is closed, it is like we are all in a cage,” he said according to the Reuters news agency.
High insurance premiums
PIA, which runs chartered flights to Kabul rather than regular commercial services, said it had maintained the flights on humanitarian grounds and paid more than $400,000 as insurance premium, “which could only be possible if 300 passengers are available”, Khan said.
PIA said that ever since the new Taliban government was formed, its staff in Kabul had faced last-minute changes in regulations and flight permissions and intimidating behaviour from Taliban commanders.
It said its country representative had been held at gunpoint for hours in one incident and was only freed after the Pakistan embassy in Kabul intervened.
With a mounting economic crisis adding to worries about Afghanistan’s future under the Taliban, there has been heavy demand for flights out, made worse by repeated problems at land border crossings into Pakistan.
The main passport office in Kabul has been besieged by people trying to get travel documents since it reopened this month.
The flights have also been used by international officials and aid workers travelling to Kabul.
Prime Minister’s Imran Khan’s government has called on the world to engage with the Taliban and provide economic support to the aid-dependent country which has seen funding frozen by Western donors since the takeover.
Pakistan, however, has stopped short of recognising the Taliban government.