LONDON (AP) — A former U.K. Royal Marine who waged a high-profile campaign to leave Afghanistan with almost 200 rescued dogs and cats has flown to safety — with the animals, but without his charity’s Afghan staff, who were left behind in Kabul.
A privately funded chartered plane carrying Paul “Pen” Farthing and his animals landed at London’s Heathrow Airport on Sunday after a saga that gripped and divided Britain, raising difficult questions about the relative value placed on human and animal lives.
Iain McGill, a veterinarian involved in the effort, said the animals appeared healthy and had been placed in quarantine.
Farthing, who started the Nowzad charity after serving with British forces in Afghanistan 15 years ago, was eligible for evacuation in Britain’s military airlift along with Afghan members of his staff and their dependents. But he refused to leave without the animals.
For days, Farthing used social media and press interviews to chronicle his attempts to depart with his four-legged companions amid the chaotic exodus from Kabul airport, as his supporters lobbied the British government for help with a rescue effort dubbed Operation Ark.
Farthing gained backing from celebrities including comedian Ricky Gervais, and many offers to adopt the rescued animals. But he also drew criticism from those who said the case was draining time and energy from the task of rescuing Afghans at risk from the country’s new Taliban rulers.
Britain says it evacuated more than 15,000 U.K. citizens and vulnerable Afghans in a two-week airlift that ended Saturday. But officials say as many as 1,100 Afghans who were entitled to come to the U.K. have been left behind. Some British lawmakers who have been trying to help stranded constituents and their families believe the true total is higher.
“What would you say if I sent an ambulance to save my dog rather than to save your mother?” said Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, who served with the British Army in Afghanistan.
“We’ve just used a lot of troops to bring in 200 dogs. Meanwhile my interpreter’s family is likely to be killed,” Tugendhat told radio station LBC on Saturday.
Farthing and his supporters say Operation Ark did not take airplane seats from people or drain resources from the official evacuation operation. But U.K. government officials have become increasingly vocal in their frustration.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the military had to prioritize people over pets, and complained that some of Farthing’s more militant supporters had “taken up too much time” of senior commanders and had sent abuse to military staff.
The Sunday Times released a recording of an expletive-filled message left by Farthing last week for a senior defense official, Peter Quentin, accusing him of “blocking” the evacuation and threatening to “spend the rest of my time … destroying you on social media.”
Animal welfare campaigner Dominic Dyer, who has acted as a U.K.-based spokesman for Farthing, said Farthing was “a national hero” who was facing “a smear campaign” by government officials.
“Pen Farthing, who was risking his life in Kabul to get his people and animals to Britain, was completely justified in holding Mr. Quentin to account for his actions,” he said.
A convoy carrying Farthing, this staff and the animals was near Kabul airport on Thursday when a suicide bomber killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops. On Friday, after days of failed attempts by the group to reach safety, the British military said it had given clearance for the chartered flight and British troops had “assisted” Farthing and the animals into the airport.
Dyer said Taliban guards would not let the Afghan staff enter, even though they had papers permitting them to come to Britain. He said Nowzad would continue to work to get them safely to Britain.
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