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WASHINGTON : A group of Afghan Air Force pilots and their relatives who had fled the Taliban flew out of Uzbekistan this weekend after the US and Uzbek governments reached an agreement on their transfer, people familiar with the matter said.

The Uzbek government has been under intense pressure by the Taliban in Afghanistan to hand over the pilots, who flew themselves and relatives to safety in Uzbekistan aboard Afghan Air Force helicopters and airplanes.

The U.S. effort to train and build an Afghan Air Force was among the most celebrated programs in support of the country’s military. The U.S. spent billions of dollars on the air force, including on training, maintenance and the supply of dozens of helicopters and planes.

Among the Taliban, the pilots have been among the most hated members of the Afghan forces for their role in carrying out airstrikes against Taliban forces. While the Taliban have promised amnesty to government officials and forces, the pilots fear for their and their families’ safety.

Still in question is the fate of the 46 aircraft that landed at Termez airfield in Uzbekistan near the border with Afghanistan. These include U.S.-supplied Black Hawks and PC-12 surveillance aircraft, along with Soviet-era MI-17s.

The Taliban are calling for the aircraft to be returned to Afghanistan, a move likely to be strongly opposed by the U.S. Uzbekistan has carefully hedged relations between global powers in the region and has privately urged the State Department to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

The Taliban criticized the transfer of pilots out of Uzbekistan.

“These pilots should return to their country, the country needs them," said spokesman Suhail Shaheen. “We are just starting to rebuild our country. The world should help us, instead of hurling hurdles in the way of reconstruction of Afghanistan and economic prosperity of our people."

The State Department declined to comment. Uzbek officials in Washington declined to comment.

Initial plans focused on flying the pilots to Doha, Qatar, but ultimately the first plane carrying the Afghan passengers flew to the United Arab Emirates this weekend, people familiar with the matter said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the group would ultimately be transferred to the U.S. or elsewhere.

The transfer from Afghanistan prompted relief on Capitol Hill, where the pilots had drawn support from lawmakers who had served in the military. But the reaction also pointed to continued frustration with the Biden administration’s handling of the Afghan exit within Congress, which returns from a recess this month and is expected to hold hearings on the chaotic withdrawal.

The Uzbek government maintained relations with the Taliban for years prior to the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul last month, capping a sweeping offensive that captured most cities across Afghanistan with barely a shot fired.

The presence of the pilots, crews and their families in Uzbekistan, totaling some 585 people, has been a problem for the Uzbek government since their arrival.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee was set to hold a hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal Monday, at which Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to face questions about the status of the pilots as well as those who are still in Afghanistan or third countries.

“I am going to be asking and other members will be asking some hard questions about who we’re getting out, how we’re getting them out, and how does that compare with the vetting of people who previously got out that may not qualify," said Rep. August Pfluger (R., Texas), who had privately pressed the Biden administration to transfer the pilots from Uzbekistan in part because a constituent is married to one of the pilots.

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