Two flights carrying refugees from the situation in Afghanistan took off from Islamabad last night and are due to land at Melsbroek military airfield this morning, the defence ministry said.
The planes, a military Airbus A330 and a civilian flight chartered from Air Belgium, are scheduled to land at 08.40 and 09.45, carrying around 400 evacuees.
The people on board have been airlifted out of Kabul and taken to safety in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, before being flown to Belgium. The military aircraft used to make that shuttle trip between Kabul and Islamabad then returned to Kabul to pick up more people.
The evacuees include Belgian nationals and their families, other Europeans, and Afghan nationals who have worked together with allied forces during the 20-year occupation, placing their lives at risk now that the Taliban is back in power.
Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden has suggested the US may delay its departure from Afghanistan beyond the 31 August deadline, in order to oversee the completion of the evacuation effort.
US troops are charged with the job of guarding access to the airport, the only possible route for thousands of people to get out of the country. But that job has become virtually impossible in recent days, as crowds – including those with and without official permission to leave – have overwhelmed the airport.
According to reports from Nato, at least seven people have died at the scene.
In response to Biden’s suggestion, the Taliban issued a warning.
“President Biden announced that he would withdraw all military personnel on August 31. If he does not, it means that he will extend the occupation. And there is no need,” spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Sky News.
“If the US or the UK are looking for extra time to continue evacuations, the answer is no.” Shaheen spoke of ‘a red line’ and warned of ‘consequences’ if the departure commitment is not respected.
“It would create mistrust in us. If they continue the occupation, it will provoke a reaction,” he said.
Back in Belgium, the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan has raised the spectre of criminals or terrorists finding their way into the flow of genuine refugees.
According to Het Nieuwsblad, the federal police sent an urgent circular to all offices as early as last week, before the evacuation effort had even begun, warning of the threat.
“At the request of the Cabinet of the Interior, the Commissioner General and the Director General of the Judicial branch ordered an analysis of the Afghan youth gangs in the asylum centres of Fedasil.”
The mail speaks of “an impending significant wave of migration in the coming weeks and months”.
“It cannot be ruled out that some fundamentalists will arrive on our national territory,” the email concludes.