Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban government has asked Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to return air force planes and helicopters flown to the neighboring countries by fleeing pilots as the U.S.-backed government in Kabul collapsed last August.
Addressing an Afghan air force ceremony in the capital Tuesday, Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob said his government would never allow the aircraft to be seized or used by these countries.
“I respectfully call on [Uzbekistan and Tajikistan] not to test our patience and not to force us to take all possible retaliatory steps [to retake the aircraft],” Yaqoob said without elaborating further.
U.S.-trained Afghan air force pilots flew themselves and their families to safety in Uzbekistan aboard more than 40 aircraft, including A-29 light attack planes and Black Hawk helicopters, just days before the Taliban takeover of the country on August 15.
Uzbek authorities reported in early September they had deported hundreds of Afghan pilots and their families for illegally flying into the county aboard military aircraft.
The Afghan citizens were reportedly transferred to a U.S. military base in the United Arab Emirates under an arrangement Washington negotiated with Uzbekistan to move more than 450 Afghans.
But the fate of the aircraft remains unclear. Before the fall of the government in August, Afghanistan had more than 164 active aircraft, a large number of which were flown out of the country. Only 81 were left behind, according to Afghan media reports.
Yaqoob in his speech Tuesday invited all the pilots and engineers to come back to safety in Afghanistan. “They wouldn’t be honored in foreign countries. We will honor them. They are the treasure of our country,” he said.
Critics say the Taliban consider the pilots among the most reviled members of the U.S.-trained and equipped former Afghan security forces for their role in carrying out airstrikes against Taliban insurgents over many years.
Analysts remain skeptical about Taliban security assurances and a blanket amnesty the group has announced for former Afghan government officials. Dozens of ex-Afghan security personnel have been killed in recent weeks, allegedly by Taliban forces in reprisals attacks, charges the Islamist movement denies.