New Zealand's first military evacuation flight to Afghanistan safely landed at Kabul last night, spending just 30 minutes on the tarmac, before leaving with an undisclosed number of relieved passengers.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130, which left Whenuapai on the emergency mercy dash last week, touched down at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport around 7.30pm last night – just hours after a gunfight outside the airport's perimeter.
It had flown in from a base in the Middle East on the special mission to evacuate New Zealanders and Afghan nationals who hold visas fleeing the country which has fallen to the Taliban after two decades of war.
Awaiting the Kiwi plane was a group of evacuees who had run the gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints and mass fear and chaos outside the airport to make it inside the wire.
They had been waiting inside the airport's evacuation centre, which is being guarded by troops, led by American forces.
Data from real-time flight tracker website, flightradar24.com showed that the RNZAF C-130 spent just half an hour on the ground before it took off again.
The evacuees were then flown to a base in the Middle East before it's understood they will be put on a commercial long-haul flight to New Zealand.
The first group of New Zealand citizens, their families and other visa holders evacuated from Afghanistan arrived in Auckland yesterday afternoon.
Others have told of a harrowing journey getting out of the country.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cited safety and privacy reasons for not revealing how many people were on yesterday's returning flight – but at the end of the deployment, the numbers would be confirmed.
She said they had initially been evacuated to the UAE with help from Australia's Defence Force before being transferred to an Air New Zealand commercial flight.
They will now spend two weeks in Auckland MIQ.
"The window to evacuate people out of Afghanistan is very limited," Ardern said.
"Despite our ongoing efforts, we cannot guarantee we can assist all those who are seeking to evacuate.
"We are monitoring the situation and continue to work urgently with our international partners for the safe return of New Zealanders and those who have supported New Zealand."
Yesterday, an Afghan soldier was killed in a firefight outside the airport, while the Taliban warned any attempt by US troops to delay their withdrawal to give people more time to flee would "provoke a reaction".
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently advising New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and New Zealand visa-holders and their immediate family to leave Kabul airport and "shelter elsewhere until the situation can be stabilised but this advice is constantly under review".
"Our ability to assist individuals on the ground is very limited," an MFAT spokesman said.
"Access into Kabul airport remains extremely difficult and travel into Kabul from the provinces almost impossible.
"Given the security concerns and challenges at the gates of Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport in recent days, governments are working to establish a more orderly process at the airport gates."