WASHINGTON — Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, claimed Sunday the Taliban is holding "hostage" American citizens and Afghan interpreters who are attempting to leave Afghanistan, pending negotiations with the U.S. government.
"In fact, we have six airplanes at (Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport) with American citizens on them as I speak, also with these interpreters, and the Taliban is holding them hostage for demands," McCaul said during an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
McCaul, the top ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, also said he received a "classified" exact number of Americans who are still left in Afghanistan, claiming the number is "in the hundreds."
An email from the State Department to members of Congress viewed by CBS News acknowledged there are charter flights on the ground in Mazar-i-Sharif that the Taliban is preventing from flying until they approve the departure.
At least four planes chartered to evacuate several hundred people seeking to escape the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan have been unable to leave the country for days, officials told the Associated Press on Sunday, with conflicting accounts emerging about why they flights weren't able to take off as pressure ramps up on the United States to help those left behind to flee.
USA TODAY has reached out to the White House and State Department for comment.
An Afghan official at the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif said the would-be passengers were Afghans, many of whom did not have passports or visas, and thus were unable to leave the country. He said they had left the airport while the situation was sorted out.
The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said it was four planes, and their intended passengers were staying at hotels while authorities worked out whether they might be able to leave the country. The sticking point, he indicated, is that many did not have the right travel papers.
Residents of Mazar-i-Sharif also said the passengers were no longer at the airport. At least 10 families were seen at a local hotel waiting, they said, for a decision on their fates. None of them had passports or visas but said they had worked for companies allied with the U.S. or German military. Others were seen at restaurants.
Kabul airlift, visualized:In 16 days, massive planes moved enough evacuees to fill a small city
Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth-largest city, fell to the Taliban in June during the fundamentalist militant group's summer blitz across the country. The city in northern Afghanistan was a major site of NATO operations throughout the coalition's operations in the country.
While Taliban leadership maintains the groups is not seeking retribution against Afghans who worked with the U.S. and allied forces, reports to the contrary have trickled out from the country since the collapse of the Afghan government. McCaul's claims would be further provocation, as the Taliban seeks international recognition for its forming government.
"They are not clearing the airplanes to depart, they've sat at the airport for the last couple days," McCaul told Fox News' Chris Wallace.
"These planes and they're not allowed to leave. We know the reason why is because the Taliban wants something in exchange. This is really, Chris, turning into a hostage situation where they're not going to allow American citizens to leave until they get full recognition for the United States of America," he continued.
During a Sunday interview with CNN's "State of the Union," White House chief of staff Ron Klain said that the administration is "going to find ways" to get Americans in Afghanistan out of the country. Klain did not address McCaul's claims about Americans in Mazar-i-Sharif.
"We are going to find ways to get them – the ones that want to leave – to get them out of Afghanistan. We know many of them have family members, many of them want to stay, but the ones that want to leave, we're going to get them out," Klain said.
Klain continued that there are "around 100" Americans left in the country and that the administration will continue to work to evacuate Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas from the country, though he did not provide an estimate for the number of potential recipients.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that between 100-200 Americans are still in the country. He said most are dual citizens who have family ties to Afghanistan and thus may not want to leave.
While the final U.S. troops withdrew from the country Aug. 31, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said there is "no deadline" on getting Americans who want to leave out of the country.
Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.
Contributing: The Associated Pr