By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Amid the desperate mission to evacuate Afghans to Britain after the Taliban's capture of Kabul, the British defence minister has become embroiled in a bitter row over the plight of a former soldier and his animal rescue charity.
Former Royal Marine Paul 'Pen' Farthing has been seeking to leave Afghanistan with the staff of his Nowzad charity and the scores of dogs and cats for which they cared.
Their case has become a major story in Britain, whose public is renowned for their love of animals, and led to regular questions for senior ministers, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
On Twitter, Farthing claimed that an official working for defence minister Ben Wallace had initially prevented his team and animals from getting flights out of the country where thousands are seeking to leave ahead of a U.S. departure deadline of Aug. 31.
His plight, which has been dubbed 'Operation Ark', gained wide support on social media including from a number of high-profile figures such as actor and comedian Ricky Gervais.
"Growing crisis for Prime Minister tonight as MoD (Ministry of Defence) sabotage operation over Operation Ark is exposed & Pen Farthing, his team & animals are left at the mercy of the Taliban in Kabul," animal welfare campaigner Dominic Dyer wrote on Twitter two days ago.
British officials have now given Farthing, his staff and the animals the go-ahead to travel to Britain and said they would facilitate allowing a privately-funded aircraft a landing slot at Kabul to take them back, once they can get into the airport after being processed.
But the accusations by Farthing's followers led Wallace to issue a lengthy rebuttal on Twitter on Thursday, in which he said he could not allow anyone to jump the queue and would not prioritise pets over people.
"The bullying, falsehoods and threatening behaviour by some towards our MOD personnel and advisors is unacceptable and a shameful way to treat people trying to help the evacuation. They do their cause no good," he wrote.
Johnson, whose wife Carrie is an animal rights campaigner, said he had absolutely no influence on any particular case.
In his latest tweet, Farthing said he, his team and animals were now waiting to get through the perimeter airport checks.
"We have been here for 10 hours after being assured that we would have safe passage. Truly would like to go home now," he said.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)