Blair's Afghan Adventure; U.S. Jets Escort Premier for Midnight Landing as He Meets Interim Leader

By Hughes, David | Daily Mail (London), January 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Blair's Afghan Adventure; U.S. Jets Escort Premier for Midnight Landing as He Meets Interim Leader


Hughes, David, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: DAVID HUGHES

TONY BLAIR savoured the spoils of war last night as he became the first foreign leader to visit Afghanistan since the routing of the Taliban.

His arrival prompted an unprecedented and dramatic security operation in the warravaged country.

Hundreds of American and British troops ringed the Bagram airbase near Kabul which, until a few weeks ago, formed the bitterly contested frontline in the conflict.

Mr Blair touched down at midnight local time in an RAF Hercules transporter with antimissile defences.

The plane's lights were switched off and the pilot wore night-vision goggles to land in the darkness.

Bagram was used - even though large areas of the airbase are still sealed off because of landmines and unexploded shells, most buildings are in ruins and only half the runway is open - after plans to fly Mr Blair to Kabul Airport were scrapped on security grounds.

As he arrived, escorted by U.S.

fighter jets, helicopter gunships scoured the surrounding hills to ensure there were no renegade Al Qaeda fighters to threaten the plane with sniper fire or missiles.

The Prime Minister touched down to chaotic scenes after an hour-long flight from Islamabad, Pakistan.

As he left the Hercules with his wife Cherie, he was mobbed by Afghan journalists and the official welcoming party. Mr Blair, the first British premier to visit Afghanistan, was met by Afghanistan's interim prime minister Hamid Karzai. He inspected a ragamuffin guard of honour while an elderly four-piece band played what sounded like a dance tune.

Despite the bitter cold, he did not have on an overcoat while Mrs Blair wore a full-length black suede coat with a fake fur trimmed collar.

Guarded by the SAS, Mr Blair was taken in a convoy of trucks to a hangar for a meeting with Mr Karzai, other members of Afghanistan's interim government and UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

He also met Major General John McColl, who is leading the International Security Assistance Force, which includes troops from France, America, Germany, Italy, Canada and the Netherlands.

Mr Blair chatted with some of the 500 UK soldiers spearheading the force in Kabul, as well as SAS and SBS troops who have been in the battle zone for several months.

Corporal Dave Bickel, 36, whose duties in Afghanistan meant he missed Christmas at home with his wife and three children, said: 'It really means a lot to us that Tony Blair has bothered to make a visit. …

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