These countries offered to help Afghan refugees, U.S. flights are yet to arrive

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SKOPJE, North Macedonia — Three Balkan countries have offered to help desperate Afghans, but no refugees have flown in on American flights.

As thousands of people continue to throng around Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, officials in North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania — neighboring Balkan countries whose populations have experienced violence themselves — said last week that they had offered to temporarily take in those fleeing Afghanistan.

But a week after the Taliban completed its lightning-fast takeover of the country, finally walking into Kabul last Sunday without firing a shot, no refugees have arrived on American flights, officials in the countries said. They did not know when the Afghans would arrive.

Duško Arsovski, a spokesman for the government of North Macedonia, said Saturday that his country was waiting for information and was in the process of organizing hotels for the refugees to stay in.

Afghans hoping to flee from the country gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on Friday.Wakil Kohsar / AFP – Getty Images

The country’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, said Friday that his tiny nation would take in around 650 Afghans.

“We are rescuing a peaceful population who have cherished democracy for 20 years and who were a help and support to our military on their missions over there,” he said.

A spokesman for Kosovo’s government said a flight could be expected in coming days, although he had no information about when it would arrive and could not say how many Afghans his country would take in.

The situation was equally unclear in Albania where the prime minister’s spokesman, Endri Fuga, said, “If they arrive today, we still don’t know.”

The State Department and the Pentagon did not comment when asked why flights had not been sent to those countries, despite the thousands hoping for a flight out of Afghanistan.

Back in Kabul, the United States is facing a logistical nightmare getting American citizens and Afghan refugees out of the city after thousands of terrified people raced to the airport desperate to leave as the Taliban consolidated control of the country.

The U.K. government said Sunday that seven people had died after being crushed in the crowds around the airport.

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A day earlier, two U.S. defense officials said America was tracking specific threats from ISIS against Kabul’s airport and against Americans and others trying to leave Afghanistan. The military is working on alternative ways to get Americans, Afghans and third-country nationals safely to the airport.

“We are executing an alternate path,” a defense official said.

Earlier, American citizens were advised by the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan against traveling to the airport because of “potential security threats.”

Some 22,000 people have so far been evacuated from Afghanistan since operations began in late July, with 17,000 evacuated over the past week, Gen. William Taylor told reporters Saturday. In the previous 24 hours, 3,800 people have been evacuated from Kabul, he added.

President Joe Biden has pledged that America will do all that it can to provide safe evacuation for Afghan civilians, many of whom helped American forces during their time in the country and now might be targeted because of their association with the U.S.

Afghans run away after Taliban fighters use guns fire, whips, sticks and sharp objects to maintain crowd control outside the Kabul Airport, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

But time is running out ahead of his Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining U.S. troops and he has not committed to extending it.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that the U.S. was attempting to transfer people through regional countries, like Qatar, due in part to fuel efficiency. From there, Americans can take commercial or State Department charter flights home, he said.

On Sunday, the Pentagon said it would draft in commercial aircraft to help transport people once they have been evacuated from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in southern Europe, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia — the newest member of NATO — remain eager to help their U.S. ally.

“The governments of North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo are eager to show their strategic alliance with the U.S.,” said Petar Arsovski, a Macedonian political consultant. “And maybe send a message to the E.U. that they’re not without options.”

The three countries are hemmed in by European Union member states but are not part of the political and economic group.

Arsovski said the region was attempting to curry favor with the White House. North Macedonia wants the Biden administration to lean on Bulgaria to unblock its accession process to the E.U., Kosovo is hoping Washington will help it build a more productive dialogue with Serbia, and Albania also wants to start negotiations to join the E.U., he added.

At an otherwise-quiet Skopje airport Friday night, reporters greeted a flight of Macedonians who had been working for military contractors in Kabul. As families welcomed their loved ones teary-eyed with relief under fluorescent airport lights, several people expressed concern for Afghan civilians left behind.

“Those people really need help,” Jusuf Mustafi, 36, who said he had been working as a military contractor on and off in Afghanistan for three-and-a-half years. “Everyone should help every human.”

Mehmed Rexhepi who worked as a contractor in Afghanistan, speaks to the media after his arrival from Kabul to Skopje International Airport in North Macedonia on Friday. Armend Nimani / For NBC News

Mustafi said his country was right to have offered to take in refugees, noting that some Macedonians knew what it meant to be uprooted by violence as they were forced to flee during 2001 clashes that shook this Balkan nation.

It was a sentiment echoed on the wide thoroughfares of central Skopje that boasts imposing monuments and is surrounded by picturesque hills.

“When the war happened here I was a refugee,” said Deti Saiti, 49, a shop assistant in an Albanian neighborhood of the city near the banks of the River Vardar. “Nobody wants to leave their homes, they’re forced to, so of course we will welcome them.”

But not everyone was so welcoming. Some passersby said North Macedonia was poor and couldn’t cope with more dependents.

“They should go to America, it’s a wealthy nation,” said Ivanka Miteva, 74.

Welcome or not so far no Afghan refugee has made it to the Balkans to find out.

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