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ISLAMABAD (AP) — A top Taliban official on Wednesday urged former Afghan military pilots to remain in the country, saying they were protected by a national amnesty and would not face arrest.
Government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid's assurances came after dozens of U.S.-trained Afghan pilots left Tajikistan in a U.S.-brokered evacuation Tuesday, three months after they sought refuge there from a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Afghan air force pilots played a key role, alongside their U.S. counterparts, in the 20-year war against Taliban insurgents that ended with the departure of foreign troops in late August. The airstrikes inflicted heavy casualties among the Taliban and repeatedly drove them from positions they had seized in different parts of the country.
As the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took over in mid-August, dozens of Afghan pilots fled to Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
It's not clear how many military pilots and crew members remain in Afghanistan, what level of risk they face or to what extent Taliban assurances can be trusted. Over the past three months, there have been some reports of revenge killings by the Taliban, but not on a large, organized scale.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said at a briefing with reporters that about 140 Afghan pilots and others were flown out of Tajikistan and arrived in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates early Wednesday. He said the U.S. Embassy would soon begin processing them for eventual admission to the U.S.
Tajik media reported that in all, 191 Afghans, including 143 pilots, were flown to the Emirates.
Asked about the airlift, Mujahid said that Afghanistan needs pilots and that all is forgiven.
“My message is, there is no security problem for them (Afghan pilots) in Afghanistan, there is no plan of arresting them, national amnesty is announced,” he said. He said the pilots, whether in the military or in civil aviation, “can be at the service of their country.”
“It is regrettable that a number of pilots have gone, or they are going,” he added.
Separately, a spokesman for the Taliban intelligence service told the news conference that the agency has arrested close to 600 members of the militant Islamic State group in connection with violent attacks over the past three months.
The spokesman, Khalil Hamraz, said that among the detainees are key IS figures, including financial supporters.
At least 33 IS members have been killed in gunbattles with Taliban security forces, he said. He said several cars rigged with explosives and suicide vests were seized before they could be detonated.
Islamic State is an enemy of the Taliban. The two groups share a hard-line interpretation of Islam and over the years engaged in some of the same violent tactics, such as suicide bombings. However, the Taliban have focused on seizing control of Afghanistan, while IS adheres to global jihad.
In recent weeks, IS militants carried out a series of bombing and shooting attacks, trying to undercut a claim by the Taliban that they could restore security in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed.