US Central Command, which oversaw the US evacuation from Afghanistan, disputed an Air Force account of an attempted hijacking of a commercial flight from Kabul international airport during the final weeks of the evacuation from the country.
In a statement to CNN on Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Central Command said they are “unaware” of an attempted hijacking.
“I am unaware of any attempt to hijack a plane at Hamid Karzai International airport,” said US Central Command spokeswoman LT Josie Lynne Lenny in a statement Thursday afternoon.
“During the Afghanistan evacuation mission, an intel tip indicated the possibility of a plot to highjack a particular flight that was preparing to depart the airfield. Ground traffic controllers diverted the plane to a safe location on the airfield where security forces boarded the plane and determined that there was no active attempt to hijack the aircraft.”
The Air Force account which detailed an attempted hijacking of a commercial airliner was published Tuesday on the Air Force’s website and was written by Lt. Col. Kristen Duncan, a public affairs officer for the 23rd Wing, which deployed to Afghanistan this summer. During the evacuation operation, as US Air Force C-17s began steadily arriving at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Duncan wrote that airmen from the personnel recovery task force began tracking passengers departing the airport.
“On one occasion after they received an intel tip, five people onboard one of the commercial flights intended to hijack the aircraft,” Duncan wrote.
“‘Our team worked to get them clear of the NATO ramp, relocated to the north side away from friendly forces, then ultimately onto the south side where the situation was handled,'” she wrote, quoting Lt. Col. Brian Desautels, the commander of the 71st Rescue Squadron and the leader of the airmen at Kabul.
While Duncan’s published account offers few details on the attempted hijacking, it provides fresh insight into the US’ frantic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, when American military personnel rushed to evacuate themselves, as well as other Americans and Afghan allies, from the country after it fell to the Taliban.
Duncan does not specify which carrier or on what day the flight left, and there is also no information provided about the five people removed from the flight and whether they were detained or released.
Duncan’s account includes a note that it had been “thoroughly reviewed” and approved by Central Command on October 6 for operational security reasons. The statement from CENTCOM made no mention of the review.
As of late Thursday afternoon, there has been no change or update to the posted account from Duncan.
In describing the frenetic scene at the airport, Duncan writes that, moments after a C-17 cargo aircraft took off with Afghans clinging to its side, two of the Wing’s HC-130J combat rescue aircraft took off with barely any runway to spare, skimming 10 feet above the heads of the crowd that had swarmed the airport during the evacuation efforts.
Duncan said that Desautels had reached out to the Combined Forces Air Component Commander, who said aircraft could take off from a taxiway if needed.
“‘The strategic message: we would have a runway,'” Desautels said, according to Duncan’s account.
Duncan also described another scene at Kabul’s airport in which an officer came under “effective sniper fire” as expeditionary rescue squadrons helped secure a part of the airport for medical treatment.
“To stay open, the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Forward said he needed people to cover security,” Duncan wrote. “Personnel Recovery Task Force (PRTF) Pilots, maintainers and support personnel donned their vests, helmets and M-4 rifles and manned defensive fighting positions.”
“‘One of our captains was on the rooftop taking effective sniper fire,'” Duncan quoted Desautels as saying. “Every enemy combatant was taking every opportunity to incite more chaos in what was already a chaotic event.”
The statement from Central Command does not mention sniper fire.
Though the US fully withdrew all military personnel from Afghanistan in late August, marking the end of America’s longest war, some US citizens were left in the country and later evacuated.
The withdrawal, which began earlier in the summer and picked up speed as an August 31 deadline approached, also turned deadly after a terrorist attack at Kabul’s airport killed 13 US service members.
This story has been updated with a statement from US Central Command disputing the Air Force account of an attempted hijacking.
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