A charity worker campaigning for staff and 200 animals to be flown out of Afghanistan has been cleared for evacuation by the defence secretary.
Paul Farthing, known as Pen, founded the Nowzad animal shelter in Kabul after serving with the British Army in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Farthing has campaigned to have his staff and their families as well as 140 dogs and 60 cats evacuated from the country in a plan he has dubbed Operation Ark.
The UK government granted visas for all his staff and their dependents on Monday but defence secretary Ben Wallace insisted the animals would have to wait behind.
Farthing claimed on Tuesday that he had been "left to fend" for himself in Kabul, an accusation that was strongly denied by Wallace – who also said he would not prioritise “pets over people” in the evacuation process.
Nowzad supporters announced on the same day that a privately chartered Airbus A330 – funded by donations – was on standby to fly to Kabul to rescue the group’s workers and animals.
Watch: Pen Farthing: 'I never said to prioritise pets over people'
But Wallace said this was still not a “magic wand”, insisting the major problem with evacuations in Kabul has been getting people safely into and through the airport and that the chartered plane would merely “block the airfield” and “sit there empty”.
However, in a series of tweets early on Wednesday, Wallace said if Farthing arrived at the airport with his staff and animals, officials would seek to facilitate their departure aboard the chartered aircraft.
He added if Farthing and his staff chose not to bring the animals they could board an RAF flight, as all had been granted leave outside the immigration rules (LOTR) to fly to the UK.
Wallace tweeted: “Now that Pen Farthing’s staff have been cleared to come forward under LOTR I have authorised MOD to facilitate their processing alongside all other eligible personnel at (Kabul airport). At that stage, if he arrives with his animals we will seek a slot for his plane.
“If he does not have his animals with him he and his staff can board an RAF flight. I have been consistent all along, ensuring those most at risk are processed first and that the limiting factor has been flow THROUGH to airside NOT airplane capacity.”
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab also confirmed the government is working with Farthing to get him and his staff out of Afghanistan.
In an update this morning, Raab told LBC: “We’re trying to do all we can for the staff, but in terms of the animals, and the question of whether they can be prioritised ahead of the other people that are trying to get out, I don’t have anything more to add to what the defence secretary, I think, rightly said in the last 24 hours.”
Farthing has previously said the animals would be transported in the aircraft’s hold and that once his staff were accommodated any spare seats on the plane could be filled by other people cleared for passage by UK authorities, with the flight able to take 250 passengers in total.
“The cargo hold is empty – we put the dogs and cats in there!! And 250 people above in the cabin!” Farthing tweeted.
Earlier, a Nowzad supporter in the UK, veterinary surgeon Dr Iain McGill, said that after the animals and the charity’s staff, the remaining 130 seats on the plane would be filled with at-risk Afghans.
Earlier, Wallace had suggested Farthing should leave the animals behind and seek to take them out of Afghanistan at a later time.
Wallace told Sky News he did not believe the Taliban’s “main point of target” would be Farthing’s staff and animals “compared to some of those other people desperate in front of the queue”.
He said that once evacuation efforts were over, if Farthing “wants to repatriate the pets that he looks after and the strays, I genuinely believe that they will be allowed to move forward at a later date when that airport opens”.
Foreign forces facilitating evacuations appear set to leave the country in a week, with US president Joe Biden on Tuesday refusing to prolong his 31 August deadline for the withdrawal of his troops.
Other nations are likely to follow America’s lead, leaving the Taliban in full control of the country.
Watch: Defence secretary discusses Afghanistan evacuation effort