The ruling Taliban in Afghanistan have warned neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan of "consequences" in case they fail to return the Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters that were flown into their territories by fleeing pilots during the US military exit in August last year.
All Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters "taken abroad must be returned... (without) testing our patience," Taliban Defense Minister Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid said in his speech at an Afghan Air Force event in Kabul on Tuesday.
"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," the Afghan official was quoted as saying by TOLO News.
In his speech, the Taliban official said all the pilots and flight engineers who had fled the country were welcome to return to Afghanistan. He described the pilots as heroes.
"They wouldn't be honored in foreign countries. We will honor them. They are the treasure of our country," the Taliban minister said in his Tuesday speech.
Afghanistan had over 164 active military warplanes before the US withdrawal and now there are only 81 left in the country, according to the Defense Ministry reports cited by TOLO.
Meanwhile, Afghan pilots who were held at an Uzbek camp, near the city of Termez, before their evacuation had described their stay in the country as captivity. Their hopes began to lift just a week ago when US officials arrived to carry out biometric screening of the personnel.
A former US diplomat said the United States owed it to the fugitive Afghan pilots. "I hope we have plans underway to make sure the aircraft they got out get back to the United States and certainly do not return to the Taliban," said John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Uzbekistan.
Dozens of Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters, including A-29 light attack planes and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, were flown out of Afghanistan as the country's ground forces collapsed and the Taliban swept to power.
Separately, Reuters reported on Tuesday that US-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel in Uzbekistan had begun leaving the country for the United Arab Emirates.
A pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the transfer, which was expected to take place in several waves, had started on Sunday.
Also, an Afghan woman who was one of the few female pilots in her country's Air Force and who was feared dead reported she was alive and well, residing on the West Coast of the United States.
Safia Ferozi spoke with Stars and Stripes by phone over the weekend about her evacuation from Afghanistan, her reaction to a viral photo purportedly showing her death, and her hopes for remaking her life in the US.
Ferozi fled Afghanistan on August 15 with her husband, Jawad Najafi, and their five-year-old daughter, Nargis, shortly after Taliban seized the capital, Kabul.