Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing – the ex-Royal Marine who founded an animal shelter in Afghanistan – has landed in Heathrow with more than 150 cats and dogs, following a fraught and controversial evacuation from Kabul.
Some 24 Afghan staff members and other dependents at his Nowzad sanctuary remain stuck in Taliban-controlled Kabul, which the charity described as a “terrible blow”.
Mr Farthing described having “mixed emotions” and a “true deep feeling of sadness” for Afghanistan as he arrived back in the UK. He praised those at Heathrow Airport who are helping evacuees and suggested his own evacuation effort, dubbed Operation Ark, had been a “partial success”.
The Essex-born veteran arrives home to a similarly mixed reaction to his evacuation mission, which has amassed celebrity backing and vast public support – but was labelled a distraction by the defence secretary Ben Wallace and prompted questions from an influential Tory MP over why Mr Farthing’s dogs’ lives were seemingly prioritised over those of Afghan people in the race to rescue thousands from the Taliban.
Although visas had been granted for his staff and their dependents, who were eligible for evacuation in Britain’s military airlift, Mr Farthing had refused to leave Afghanistan without his pets, aiming to get some 200 dogs and cats out of the country.
His campaign to evacuate his staff and animals soon gained attention in the UK and garnered support from swathes of the public and celebrities including Ricky Gervais and Judi Dench.
However in the tense days that followed, Mr Wallace accused the charity founder’s supporters of sending “abuse” to Ministry of Defence officials, while The Sunday Times published audio of an expletive-laden voicemail allegedly sent by Mr Farthing to Mr Wallace’s special adviser Peter Quentin, in which he threatened to “f****** destroy” the aide on social media unless he expedited the evacuation.
He, his animals and his staff were then turned away at Kabul airport on Thursday over a change in paperwork rules after “going through hell” to get there, said Mr Farthing, who served as a marine for 22 years.
As a result, they found themselves caught up in the chaos caused by the Isis-affiliated terror attack that killed 13 US troops and at least 179 Afghan civilians queuing up to flee the Taliban.
On Friday, Mr Farthing and his animals were assisted through Kabul airport by the armed forces, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.
He and his animals escaped Kabul the following day, departing on a privately chartered flight filled with empty seats, according to Dominic Dyer, an animal welfare campaigner and supporter of Mr Farthing.
Mr Dyer claimed an appeal had been put in to the British government “to see if we could fill seats with refugees within the airport”, but “they told us there was no one they could find that could actually fill that aircraft”.
“In fact, they had more air capacity than they had people, which probably tells you an awful lot about the final days of the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Mr Dyer said.
The British evacuation effort at Kabul airport – the largest since the Second World War – ended on Saturday night, after rescuing 15,000 people in under a fortnight. At least a thousand eligible Afghans have been left behind, however Labour believes the true figure to be closer to 5,000.
Mr Farthing’s staff are “still in their homes” and the charity is in contact with them, Mr Dyer said, adding: “They are one of thousands of Afghans ... that have a right to leave the country but actually have no safe passage out at the moment.”
In a statement on Saturday, in which the charity confirmed Mr Farthing was “now safe” after leaving Kabul, Nowzad said: “We are now working extremely hard to get them evacuated and will not rest until they too are safe ... We will do our utmost to help them.”
Meanwhile, Dr Iain McGill, a vet aboard the plane back with Mr Farthing, told the BBC that the rescued animals – comprising between 90 to 100 dogs and 60 to 70 cats – are, “considering what they’ve been through ... in very good shape on the whole”.
He said the animals had been checked and had gone to quarantine kennels, adding: “As you can imagine they're not short of homes for these animals.”
However, perhaps in more of an indication of the reportedly soured mood in Whitehall towards Mr Farthing than a true threat to the animals’ future wellbeing, The Sunday Times quoted a senior official as saying: “If they turn out to be riddled with disease [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] will have to put them down.”
Referencing a recent high-profile plea for clemency on behalf of an animal condemned to death after testing positive for bovine tuberculosis, they added: “It will be Geronimo the alpaca on speed.”
With the outlook remaining dire for thousands of Afghans ahead of the US-imposed withdrawal deadline on Tuesday, the rescue of the animals has become a source of frustration for some MPs.
“What would you say if I sent an ambulance to save my dog rather than to save your mother?” Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who served with the British Army in Afghanistan, told LBC on Saturday. “We've just used a lot of troops to bring in 200 dogs. Meanwhile my interpreter's family is likely to be killed.”
“As one interpreter asked me a few days ago: ‘Why is my five-year-old worth less than your dog?’” said Mr Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs committee.
But Mr Farthing’s supporters argue that Operation Ark did not take up seats on British evacuation flights or drain resources from the official operation.
Mr Dyer, who has acted as a UK-based spokesperson for Mr Farthing, said the charity founder was “a national hero” who was “risking his life in Kabul to get his people and animals to Britain” and facing “a smear campaign” by government officials.
Speaking about his staff members, Mr Farthing told The Sun on Saturday: “It is just so depressing I had to leave them behind. Some of them came with me to the airport but they weren’t allowed to cross the line from Taliban to British control.
“I feel so many things. I feel very sad for them, I’m relieved for me and I feel happy for the animals. There were lots of tears when we said goodbye.”
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