Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has angrily rejected claims he blocked a flight to evacuate animals out of Afghanistan – but insisted the priority is “people not pets”.
Wallace hit out on Twitter on Thursday after former Royal Marine Pen Farthing revealed he and more than 200 dogs and cats from his animal shelter had been stuck at Kabul airport for 10 hours.
The minister, who was subjected to abuse online from animal lovers, said it was a “total myth” that he had obstructed any flight but stressed no one would “get to queue jump”.
Nowzad supporters this week announced a privately chartered Airbus A330 was on standby to fly to Kabul to rescue the group’s workers and animals.
Farthing, who said the animals would go in the hold and any spare seats could go to people leaving the country, tweeted desperate appeals to Taliban leaders to let his team through to the airport.
In his Tweets, Wallace said his staff and advisers had been subjected to “bullying, falsehoods and threatening behaviour” over the row sparked by Farthing’s bid to evacuate his Afghan staff and animals in the Nowzad shelter.
Wallace tweeted: “Let’s get some facts out there: 1. No one , at any stage has blocked a flight. This is a total myth and is being peddled around as if that is why the pet evacuation hasn’t taken place. 2. I never said I would not facilitate. I said no one would get to queue jump.
“3. The issue, as those desperate people waiting outside the gates know too well, has always been getting processed through the entrances. It can take over 24hrs. There is no point turning up with a plane until the passengers / pets are airside.”
He added: “The bullying, falsehoods and threatening behaviour by some towards our MOD personnel and advisors is unacceptable and a shameful way to treat people trying to help the evacuation. They do their cause no good.
“So can people now please let my civil servants and military get on with dealing with one of the most dangerous and challenging evacuations for a generation. As professionals they will do their best for all those eligible and with my full support.”
In another message, he said: “As I have said we will facilitate at all stages but the priority will be people not pets.”
Animal welfare campaigner Dominic Dyer, a close friend of Farthing, has claimed that Boris Johnson personally intervened to allow the flight, telling Mail+ that the PM’s wife Carrie “most certainly had something to do with the change”.
But on a conference call with MPs on Wednesday, Wallace had said that the case meant the military had been “diverted” from their primary focus on saving people.
Footage of a car being airlifted out of Kabul onto a military cargo jet prompted fury from animal rights activists including comedian Ricky Gervais, who accused the MoD of caring more about a vehicle than “sentient” animals.
Former commando Pen founded Nowzad, an animal rescue charity, after serving in Afghanistan in 2007.
He set out for the airport overnight with 25 Afghan staff and their families after Wallace agreed to let him land a private charter flight to fly them all to Britain.
In a tweet to Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, he said: “Dear sir. My team and my animals are stuck at airport circle. We have a flight waiting. Can you facilitate safe passage into the airport for our convoy?
“We have been here for 10 hours after being assured that we would have safe passage. Truly would like to go home now.”
Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told ITV’s Good Morning Britain there were “hard realities” to face about the fact that some Nowzad staff lacked the priority status of full British passport holders like Farthing.
“We are aware of this flight, the plan is to operate it through to Tajikistan – that is all fine and we can facilitate that,” he said. The issue is getting Pen into the airfield, and there are some hard realities about that.
“We are able to facilitate Pen going as a priority as a British passport holder…The reality is, to give them safe passage or bring them through ahead of everyone else means we’re moving equally desperate Afghans out of the way.”