Two Canadian military aircraft taking part in the Afghanistan evacuation efforts are being “reconfigured” amid efforts to fit on as many people fleeing the Taliban takeover as possible.
Canadian Forces members on the ground are also “assisting” with getting vetted lists of people onto the military’s Globemaster aircraft.
However, it is not clear whether that means troops are venturing outside the Kabul airport to help the people trapped either hiding from the Taliban or trying to get past the airport perimeters.
“The Globemasters are currently being reconfigured to carry the maximum number of people as safely as possible, and CAF personnel are empowered to make decisions on the ground in the interest of saving human lives,” said Jessica Lamirande, spokesperson for the Department of National Defence.
She added military teams “will be given a list of vetted and vulnerable individuals, and will be assisting those individuals onto flights. The details of that process cannot be disclosed for security reasons.”
Global News reported on Wednesday night that Canadian officials have reached a deal with the U.S. to allow two military aircraft — CC-177 Globemasters — to resume “flying regularly” as part of the international effort to evacuate diplomatic staff and Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of the country.
The transport aircraft have a capacity of roughly 140 to 160 people, though one of the defining images of the crisis over the past week has been a photograph of 640 people tightly squeezed into the cargo load of a U.S. aircraft of the same model.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that the government’s efforts to evacuate people continue, and that the first military evacuation flight by Canada left Kabul Thursday night.
He was asked how many people were on board, but did not say.
“I can tell you that the flight was full,” said Trudeau, leader of the Liberal party, who is campaigning for re-election.
Global News has been informed there were 198 people on that flight, with a source saying there were conversations about limiting the number of passengers based on the number of seatbelts available.
That’s barely half of what a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force said that country is getting on board the American aircraft flying evacuees out of Kabul.
Air Force Capt. Frederick M. Wallace told Global News in a statement the normal passenger load for the aircraft is around 100 passengers, but that was increased to 300 by seating passengers on the floor.
Over the past several days though, that number has risen.
“In the past couple of days, we’ve increased the max capacity to flying with 400 evacuees per C-17 coming out,” he said in an email.
“So right now we are putting 400 evacuees on the floor of a cargo aircraft, without any seats in a cargo aircraft designed to handle a maximum normal operations of around 100 people.”
Trudeau added he will be taking part in a virtual G7 leaders’ summit next week on the crisis.
While Parliament is dissolved during the federal election campaign, Trudeau retains his role as prime minister and his cabinet remain in their roles as ministers, though under the caretaker convention their use of that power should be limited to matters either routine or urgent and in the public interest.
American forces currently control the Kabul airport and air traffic control there.
But efforts to evacuate as many civilians and foreign nationals as possible have been complicated by the dangers on the ground, including Taliban blockades stopping people from accessing the airport, and concerns about the safety of the flight paths out of Kabul.
Trudeau said on Thursday that it will likely be “nearly impossible” to get as many people out of Kabul as Canada would hope.
“Unless the Taliban shift their posture significantly, which is something the international community and Canada are working on, it is going to be very, very difficult to get many people out,” Trudeau told reporters.
“We will get some, certainly, but to get many people out, as many as we’d want, is going to be almost impossible in the coming weeks.”
The Canadian military flights are expected to have both Canadian citizens who worked at the embassy in Kabul as well as Afghans who have supported allied efforts in the war there, and foreign nationals.
“These flights can be expected to have foreign and Afghan nationals who have been accepted under the immigration programs of other nations,” Lamirande said.
“In turn, other nations have, and will continue to, extract Canadian citizens or Afghans who are destined for (or eligible for immigration to) Canada. We are working closely with our counterparts; our goal is to ensure the safe evacuation of as many individuals as possible.”
Lamirande said work is underway to figure out how best to process the evacuees at transition points on the way to Canada, but that there’s no expectation the Canadian military will set those up.
The deadline for the evacuation efforts right now is Aug. 31.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that several of the allies running evacuations out of the airport are pushing for that to be extended.
With a file from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson.