The first planeload of Afghan refugees who supported the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan has arrived in Canada.
The federal government is not saying how many refugees were on board the flight Wednesday or where they'll be resettled in Canada, citing the need to protect the evacuees and the security of the operation.
It is the first of a number of flights the government is promising to spirit refugees out of Afghanistan as a resurgent Taliban retakes control of some districts in the country following the withdrawal of American troops.
Many Afghans who contributed to Canada's mission in Afghanistan have become targets of the Taliban.
The government last month announced a special program to urgently resettle Afghans deemed to have been "integral" to the Canadian Armed Forces' mission, including interpreters, cooks, drivers, cleaners, construction workers, security guards and embassy staff, as well as members of their families.
Applicants must still meet all the usual admissibility requirements, including security, criminal and health screenings.
In a statement late Wednesday, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government is working "around the clock" to identify eligible individuals.
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"The government has been seized with the urgency on the ground and is working as quickly as possible to resettle Afghan nationals who put themselves at great risk to support Canada's work in Afghanistan," the ministers said.
They said a team is on the ground in Afghanistan to help Afghans submit applications and provide the necessary documentation.
"We are doing everything we can to get every Afghan refugee out as swiftly as possible but we recognize that the security situation can change rapidly."
However, Not Left Behind, a group that's been advocating on behalf of Afghans who supported Canada's military, criticized the government's slow response so far and urged it to accelerate its efforts.
"The overwhelming majority of interpreters and locally employed staff remain in Afghanistan, and we continue to hear reports of panic and uncertainty caused by the slow progress and repeated gaffes in the government's response to date," the group said.
The group also said it's disappointing that the government's special program excludes Afghans who've been displaced to another country, as well as the families of Afghans who've already resettled in Canada.
Some 40,000 Canadian troops were deployed in Afghanistan over 13 years as part of the NATO mission before pulling out in 2014.
The government says more than 800 Afghans who supported the mission have been resettled in Canada over the past decade but acknowledges that many more remain in Afghanistan.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.