By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is working to verify the accuracy of the list of passengers aboard a charter plane carrying more than 100 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents evacuated from Afghanistan, the State Department said on Wednesday, after the flight’s organizers said Washington denied it landing rights.
“Our embassy staff in the UAE has been working around the clock to verify the accuracy of the passenger manifest and is coordinating with DHS/Customs and Border Protection on the ground to ensure the passengers are screened and vetted before they are permitted to fly to the United States,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“We expect the passengers to continue onward travel tomorrow morning,” the spokesperson added.
Bryan Stern, a founder of the nonprofit group Project Dynamo, said late on Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency was blocking a charter on an international flight into a U.S. port of entry.
Stern spoke to Reuters from aboard a plane that his group chartered from Kam Air, a private Afghan airline, that he said had been sitting for 14 hours at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates after arriving from Afghanistan’s capital Kabul with 117 people, including 59 children, aboard.
The group is one of several that emerged from ad hoc networks of U.S. military veterans, current and former U.S. officials and others that formed to bolster last month’s U.S. evacuation operation they viewed as chaotic and badly organized.
“All U.S.-bound flights must follow the established safety, security and health protocols before they are cleared for departure,” a DHS spokesperson said. “This process requires flight manifests to be verified before departure to the U.S. to ensure all passengers are screened appropriately.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has said its top priority is repatriating Americans and lawful permanent residents – known as green card holders – who were unable to leave Afghanistan in the U.S. evacuation operation last month.
Twenty-eight Americans, 83 green card holders and six people with U.S. Special Immigration Visas granted to Afghans who worked for the U.S. government during the 20-year war in Afghanistan were aboard the Kam Air flight, Stern said.
Stern had planned to transfer the passengers to a chartered Ethiopian Airlines plane for an onward flight to the United States that he said the customs agency cleared to land at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The agency then changed the clearance to Dulles International Airport outside Washington before denying the plane landing rights anywhere in the United States, Stern said.
“I have a big, beautiful, giant, humongous Boeing 787 that I can see parked in front of us,” Stern said. “I have crew. I have food.”
Stern said intermediaries in Kabul had obtained permission from the Taliban-run Afghan Civil Aviation Authority for the groups to send a charter flight to retrieve the passengers from Kabul airport.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Stephen Coates)