Top GOP lawmaker says Taliban won't let Americans leave from Afghanistan airport

Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulLawmakers praise upcoming establishment of cyber bureau at State Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — US 'deeply alarmed' by reports of military takeover in Sudan US 'deeply alarmed' by reports of military takeover in Sudan MORE (R-Texas) said on Sunday that six airplanes carrying American citizens and Afghan allies are sitting at an airport in Afghanistan trying to depart but that the Taliban are “holding them hostage for demands.”

McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the airplanes have been at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan “for the last couple of days” but have been unable to leave despite approval from the State Department.

“In fact we have six airplanes at Mazar-i-Sharif airport, six airplanes, with American citizens on them as I speak, also with these interpreters, and the Taliban is holding them hostage for demands right now,” McCaul told host Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceCDC director urges Americans to go outside, 'enjoy your trick-or-treating' Rep. Khanna expresses frustration about Sinema CDC director: 'We can't be complacent' amid drop in COVID-19 cases MORE on “Fox News Sunday.”

“State has cleared these flights, and the Taliban will not let them leave the airport,” he added.

When pressed by Wallace on what demands the Taliban are making, McCaul said the circumstances are “turning into a hostage situation.”

“Well, they are not clearing airplanes to depart. They've sat at the airport for the last couple days, these planes, and they're not allowed to leave,” McCaul said.

“We know the reason why is because the Taliban want something in exchange. This is really, Chris, turning into a hostage situation where they're not gonna allow American citizens to leave until they get full recognition from the United States of America,” he added.

A spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans told The Hill on Monday that it is unclear if the individuals trying to leave from Mazar-i-Sharif are currently being held in airplanes as they await evacuation, but they were on board at some point.

CBS News reported after McCaul’s interview on Sunday that multiple flights are being held on the ground at the Afghanistan airport by the Taliban.

The network reported that the State Department notified members of Congress in an email that the charter flights have approval to land in Doha “if and when the Taliban agrees to takeoff.”

The department also told members of Congress to notify groups looking to evacuate from Mazar-i-Sharif that the U.S. does not have people on the ground in that location and does not control the airspace, according to CBS News.

Ascend, a nongovernmental organization that works with women in Afghanistan, told the network that it has two planes that have been waiting for six days to depart with between 600 and 1,200 people on board, including 19 American citizens and two permanent residents.

“The U.S. airfield in Qatar that has been standing by, ready to receive, is now beginning to pack up. ... We hope visibility will add pressure to force a solution. Six days of talks are not encouraging,” Marina LeGree, the group’s executive director, told CBS News.

The U.S. completed its withdrawal mission from Afghanistan on Tuesday, but a number of American citizens remain in the country.

McCaul on Sunday said "hundreds of American citizens" are still in Afghanistan, but Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken speaks with Sudan's prime minister after African leader's detainment Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping Senate confirms four Biden ambassadors after delay MORE last week said that "under 200 and likely closer to 100" U.S. citizens are still in the country.

When reached for comment on Sunday regarding McCaul’s claims, a State Department spokesperson told The Hill that it does not have the “reliable means to confirm the basic details” of charter flights leaving Afghanistan because the U.S. no longer has personnel on the ground, air assets in the country or control of the airspace over Afghanistan or anywhere else in the region.

“Given these constraints, we also do not have a reliable means to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including who may be organizing them, the number of U.S. citizens and other priority groups on-board, the accuracy of the rest of the manifest, and where they plan to land, among many other issues,” the spokesperson told The Hill.

“We understand the concern that many people are feeling as they try to facilitate further charter and other passage out of Afghanistan,” they added.

The spokesperson said that the department will “hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan.”

“As with all Taliban commitments, we are focused on deeds not words, but we remind the Taliban that the entire international community is focused on whether they live up to their commitments,” the spokesperson added.

In a statement to The Hill late Sunday, a White House official said the U.S. is continuing to work to ensure the safe passage of Americans who wish to leave Afghanistan.

“The State Department has undertaken an extensive effort to contact American citizens who remain in Afghanistan. We continue to work around the clock to ensure safe passage out for any Americans who are seeking to leave Afghanistan,” the official said.

The official added that the U.S. government is not aware of a hostage situation like what McCaul described, and has not confirmed that any Americans are in Mazar-i-Sharif trying to depart from the airport.

—Updated at 7:42 a.m. Sept. 7