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The first flight carrying Afghans who worked as interpreters for American troops and diplomats has arrived in the United States, President Joe Biden said Friday, the start of an operation to evacuate thousands from possible Taliban retaliation.
Around 20,000 Afghans worked for the United States following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and have applied for evacuation under the State Department's Special Immigrant Visas program.
Some estimates suggest the total number of prospective evacuees under what has been dubbed "Operation Allies Refuge" could be as high as 100,000 once relatives are included.
Many of them fear retaliation from the Taliban, which has secured a vast swath of the country since foreign troops began the last stage of a withdrawal due to be complete by late August.
"Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan," Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
He added that the administration was working to quickly relocate visa-eligible Afghans "out of harm's way."
Biden said these first arrivals had already completed extensive background checks and security screenings and would undergo medical checks and other processing in Fort Lee, Virginia before being resettled across the country.
This first flight of around 200 Afghans is part of a broader group of about 2,500 who are furthest along in the visa process and who are being prioritized for relocation to the United States in the coming weeks, according to Russ Travers, an official on the White House National Security Council.
"They now join the over 70,000 Afghans who have received (Special Immigrant Visas) and started new lives in the US since 2008," Travers said.
Tracey Jacobson, the State Department's Afghanistan Task Force director, said the arrivals are expected to spend seven days at the Fort Lee military base near Petersburg, Virginia.
"They have all been Covid-tested, they've had a fitness-to-fly exam, and we have offered vaccines in Kabul to those who are interested in having them," Jacobson told reporters.
"We will also be offering those vaccines at Fort Lee."
Then, with the help of the UN International Organization for Migration, they will be sent to new homes -- either with relatives already in the United States, or arranged by the IOM and State Department.
- 'Hard times' -
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday reiterated Washington's pledge to the Afghans who worked for the US mission in Afghanistan.
"Their arrival demonstrates the US government's commitment to Afghans who put themselves and their families at great risk by working side-by-side with our service members and diplomats to build a better future for Afghanistan," he said in a statement.
"It is my great pleasure to say to them: 'welcome to your new home,'" he added.
Officials said it will take time to vet each applicant and their family.
"We absolutely intend to continue this program after the pullout of troops" on August 31, Jacobson said.
"We're going to be moving folks as fast as we logistically can," she added.
Jacobson said Washington is weighing how to help Afghans who do not qualify for the program but also face particular threats -- such as women leaders, human rights activists and journalists.
"The administration is considering a variety of different options," she said.
The US Congress on Thursday unanimously passed a measure that provides $1.1 billion to fund the resettlement of Afghans who supported the US mission.
It now heads to the House, where it is expected to win approval and receive Biden's signature.