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Rights Groups Fear for Safety of Defecting Afghan Pilots 

Uzbek soldiers guard a checkpoint near Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Termez, Uzbekistan, Aug. 15, 2021.
Uzbek soldiers guard a checkpoint near Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Termez, Uzbekistan, Aug. 15, 2021.

Human rights groups are raising alarms on behalf of several hundred Afghan military personnel and their families who defected to Uzbekistan with almost four dozen aircraft as Taliban forces closed in on Kabul last month.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations fear that Uzbek authorities will return the refugees to Afghanistan, where they would be vulnerable to retaliation from the nation’s new Taliban leaders.

“Tashkent is obliged under international human rights law to not under any circumstances return people to a country where they could face torture or even death," said Hugh Williamson, HRW’s director for Europe and Central Asia. The organization is also worried about hundreds of other Afghans who fled to Uzbekistan and are at risk of being sent back.

Jennifer Murtazashvili, director at the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, goes further, saying Washington should welcome these pilots to the United States by offering them asylum, just as it has done for other Afghan service members who were critical to the two-decade American war effort.

“These U.S.-trained specialists already faced assassination before the Taliban took over,” Murtazashvili said.

A total of 585 Afghan military personnel and their families flew to Uzbekistan in the final hours before the fall of Kabul on board 22 military aircraft and 24 helicopters. They were intercepted by Uzbek military aircraft, which forced them to land at an international airport in Termez, just across the border from Afghanistan.

Plane collisions

Amid the confusion, two Uzbek and three Afghan planes were involved in midair collisions, sending debris raining over the city of Sherabad in Uzbekistan’s Surkhandarya region. All the pilots parachuted to safety, and there were no reports of casualties.

Now, Uzbekistan must decide whether to provide a haven for the refugees, send them back to Afghanistan or help them move to a third country. That decision is complicated by Tashkent’s desire to establish friendly relations with the new Taliban government without offending Western powers.

So far, Uzbek authorities have been reluctant to discuss the matter. An initial statement from the General Prosecutor’s Office reporting the aircraft incidents was quickly withdrawn and deleted from social media pages on the ground that some details had not been fully confirmed.

But a U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed to VOA that the personnel and aircraft “are secure and being housed” by Uzbek authorities. Washington is “coordinating with the government of Uzbekistan in response to Afghan Air Force aircraft, their pilots and others crossing into Uzbekistan,” the spokesperson said.

Two Uzbek officials, talking to VOA on condition of anonymity, confirmed the State Department remarks.

Uzbekistan has maintained a delicate balancing act since the fall of the pro-Western government in Kabul, shutting its border to refugees and insisting on its determination to return Afghans to their country. At the same time, it has cooperated with the mass evacuation of U.S. and allied personnel by making its airport in Tashkent available for refueling stops on flights bound to Europe and other destinations.

Initial praise

Uzbekistan has won some praise for its willingness to assist in the evacuation. But according to HRW’s Williamson, “international goodwill would quickly disappear if Uzbekistan returns the pilots and their families” to a country now firmly in the grip of the Taliban.

Tashkent’s singular priority, however, remains security, not enabling refugee flows. The government says it is in touch with the Taliban to ensure its border areas are safe. And the Foreign Ministry warned on Monday that anyone attempting to illegally enter Uzbekistan would be treated according to the law.

“Currently, the Uzbek-Afghan border crossing is completely closed,” the ministry said on Monday, adding that the Termez crossing point would not reopen anytime soon.

That flies in the face of Washington’s appeal for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors “to allow entry for Afghans and coordinate with humanitarian international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need.”

Relations between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan are further complicated by the presence in Afghanistan of a large ethnic Uzbek population whose members include Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leader of the Northern Alliance that helped drive the Taliban from power in 2001.

Reliable sources told VOA that Dostum fled to Uzbekistan as Kabul fell, along with Ata Muhammad Noor, the former governor of Afghanistan’s Balkh province. Uzbek officials insist that is not true, and the whereabouts of both men are uncertain.