Final British flight from Afghanistan returns to UK - as Defence Secretary pays tribute to troops

Sunday, 29th August 2021, 1:35 pm

Last night (28 August), UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace tweeted a picture of hundreds of UK troops returning home from the evacuation mission in Kabul.

It has now been revealed that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, was among the last troops to touchdown on RAF Brize Norton base in Oxfordshire on Sunday morning.

It brings to an end Operation Pitting, thought to be the biggest evacuation effort by the UK since the second world war.

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‘Highest level of bravery’

Over 15,000 eligible Afghans and UK nationals have been evacuated in the two weeks from 14 August, bringing to an end the UK’s 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan.

Around 5,000 British nationals and their families were airlifted, alongside more than 8,000 Afghan former UK staff and their families and those considered at risk from the Taliban, such as journalists, judges and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The evacuation included the Royal Air Force’s single biggest capacity flight ever, with 436 people carried on a C-17 aircraft.

Mr Wallace thanked the troops for their unwavering determination to complete the mission, writing on Twitter: “The UK should be very proud of what you have done. Every one of you has displayed the highest levels of professionalism and bravery.

“You have helped thousands to get to a better future and safety. Thank you.”

‘Tremendous international effort’

The Defence Secretary has estimated that up to 1,100 eligible refugees and UK nationals have been left behind, as the government chose to end the mission three days before it was originally planning to.

Head of the UK’s evacuation efforts, Vice Adm Sir Ben Key, said he would be "very nervous" in announcing the mission had been a success until all diplomats and troops had arrived home.

He acknowledged the "tremendous international effort" but added that it wasn’t "a moment of celebration for us at all", adding that there was a "sense of sadness" at those left behind.

The evacuation was originally planned to end in cohesion with the US mission, on 31 August. However, a terrorist attack at Kabul airport on Thursday which killed 13 US troops and several Britons has led to a premature end to the mission.

The prime minister said the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan "kept al-Qaeda from our door for two decades and we are all safer as a result".

In a letter to the Armed Forces, Boris Johnson acknowledged that it would be a particularly "an especially difficult time for the friends and loved ones of the 457 service personnel who laid down their lives,” as the country watched the Taliban reclaim Kabul.

"Whether you are still serving or a veteran, a loved-one, a relation or a friend, you all played your part and you should feel immense pride," he added.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK was considering sanctions against militants, any action would "depend on the choices the Taliban make on key issues" - including on enabling safe passage out of the country.