By Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed concern on Wednesday for U.S.-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel being held in Tajikistan after fleeing across the border from Afghanistan last month as the Taliban took power.
Reuters exclusively reported first-person accounts from U.S.-trained Afghan personnel being held at a sanatorium in a mountainous, rural area outside of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, waiting and hoping for over a month for transfer by the United States.
Among the 143 Afghans there is a pilot at an advanced stage of pregnancy.
Speaking to Austin at a hearing in Congress, Republican Representative Austin Scott expressed frustration with delays in getting the pilots out of Tajikistan, given U.S. promises during the two-decade-old war that America would stand by them.
Austin appeared aware of the issue and sympathetic.
"We will get with State (Department officials) right away to see if we can move this forward. I share your concerns," Austin said.
Austin's remarks came during a hearing about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban's victory. In the war's final moments, the U.S.-backed Afghan Air Force personnel flew dozens of military aircraft across the Afghan border to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and were detained there.
It is unclear what will happen to the aircraft. Scott said it was vital that both countries knew those aircraft could not be returned to the Taliban.
"I would appreciate it if we could put that in writing to both of those countries that the equipment belongs to the U.S. - not to Afghanistan," Scott said.
The pilots who flew across the border hoped to join the other Afghan military personnel being processed for U.S. visas in places like the United Arab Emirates and Germany.
Scott appeared to pile blame on the U.S. State Department and appealed for help from Austin as well as General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command.
"We have gotten no assistance at all from the State Department to move them. And I'm asking all three of you for your help in addressing the issue," Scott said.
He also expressed frustration with the time it took to get Afghan pilots out of Uzbekistan. Reuters was first to disclose conditions there and the pilots' departure earlier this month from Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.
Some of the English-speaking pilots in Uzbekistan had feared they could be sent back by the Uzbeks to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and killed for inflicting so many Taliban casualties during the war.
"We had people in Uzbekistan - the State Department ignored them as well and said they would get to them when they got to 'em," he said.
Afghanistan's new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the country's revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm.
That offer rings hollow to Afghan pilots who spoke with Reuters. Even before the Taliban takeover, the U.S.-trained, English-speaking pilots had become their prime targets. Taliban fighters tracked down a number of them and assassinated them off-base.
"We have a lady in Tajikistan that's nine months pregnant. That's one of our pilots. And we need help removing them," Scott said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)