United States authorities have denied landing permission to a charter flight carrying 117 US citizens and Afghan evacuees now stuck in security at Abu Dhabi’s international airport, an organiser of the flight said.
The group of evacuees are all US citizens, permanent legal residents, or special immigrant visa applicants including 59 children under the age of 18, said Stan Bunner, a lawyer in Naples, Florida and former US military veteran, on Wednesday.
“Why these US citizens can’t get back to the United States and why they are stuck at this airport is beyond me,” Bunner told Al Jazeera.
The US Customs and Border Patrol has repeatedly denied the plane permission to enter the US, said Bunner who is part of an ad hoc group of US veterans called Project Dynamo that formed to help Afghans get out after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
The Project Dynamo effort is emblematic of the confusion and chaos that has plagued the American effort to get US citizens and Afghan allies out of the country. During August, US military and allied aircraft airlifted an estimated 120,000 people from Kabul’s international airport.
“Over the last 72 hours, we were able to secure all our folks at Kabul. We were able to secure our contract with the carrier. I think we were the first to obtain Taliban permission to leave,” Bunner said.
“There was one last little hiccup because the aeroplane we had chartered was denied permission to overfly Iraq by the US government,” he said.
Organisers chartered a different plane from Kam Air, a private Afghan airline. “We got a new aircraft on the ground, filled it, left Afghanistan coming out to Abu Dhabi.”
Leaving Kabul, Project Dynamo organisers believed they had full landing permission in the US for a second flight but by the time the plane got to Abu Dhabi, they were advised that plane would not be allowed to enter the US.
“The first justification was that there was no procedure by which American citizens could return to the United States on a charter flight, which we did not understand,” Bunner said.
Evacuees on the flight from Kabul included 26 US citizens, 83 permanent residents (green card holders) and six special immigrant visa applicants, Bunner said. Two additional passengers were the US organisers of the flight.
A second objection raised by US officials was concern about a measles outbreak. Organisers confirmed all passengers had current measles vaccinations and negative COVID tests, Bunner said.
Organisers have elevated the problem to the offices of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress, he said.
A DHS spokesperson told Al Jazeera all passenger manifests of US-bound flights “must be verified before departure to the US to ensure all passengers are screened appropriately”.
US Customs and Border Patrol has a processing station at Abu Dhabi airport that should be able to process the charter flight’s passengers, Bunner said.
Meanwhile, the flight’s organisers have sought entry to several international airports on the US east coast, he said.
“Our embassy staff in the UAE has been working around the clock to verify the accuracy of the passenger manifest and is coordinating with DHS/Customs and Border Protection on the ground to ensure the passengers are screened and vetted before they are permitted to fly to the United States,” a State Department communications official told Al Jazeera.
“We expect the passengers to continue onward travel tomorrow morning,” the State Department official said.
Members of the US Congress have been questioning Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and top US generals on the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and continuing efforts to get Americans and Afghan allies out of the country.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said on Tuesday he was “deeply frustrated, even furious” at the Biden administration’s continuing delays in getting remaining Americans out of Afghanistan.
Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley have acknowledged the US was surprised by the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul. In a US Senate hearing on September 28, Milley called the US withdrawal a “strategic failure“.