Politics

Exclusive: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace says British evacuation efforts in Kabul have been ‘diverted’ by bid to rescue animals cared for by ex-Royal Marine Pen Farthing

The defence secretary has complained that British military efforts to evacuate people from Kabul have been “diverted” because of the attempts to rescue animals being cared for by a former British Royal Marine, Sky News has learned.

Ben Wallace has said he found it “upsetting” that the military had been “diverted from saving .. people” because of “inaccurate stories” about what was happening to the animals and workers under the care of ex-Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing.

In a clear display of frustration in a call this afternoon with MPs, Mr Wallace said the episode was “not something I would be proud of”.

Sky News also understands the animals may still not be able to leave Afghanistan unless Mr Farthing’s own charter plane arrives. Mr Wallace said he could not put animals on an RAF plane for safety reasons.

Mr Farthing’s party may also lose out because they will not be treated as a priority.

He is currently thought to be heading to the airport where he and his staff have been called to take part in the evacuation, and they have been told they can bring their animals.

They face multiple obstacles once there, however.

They are understood not to be in the highest “priority” group as they are not deemed “at risk” so there is a chance they do not get on the plane.

The US control the airport airside, and will also have a say over whether Mr Farthing and his animals get on.

Mr Wallace told MPs: “What I was not prepared to do is prioritise pets over people, I’m afraid you might dislike me for that but that’s my view, there are also some very, very desperate people under real threat.”

Mr Wallace said that there had been so much misinformation around the attempts by Mr Farthing to ensure safe passage for his team and the animals that it had impacted the military evacuation effort.

He told MPs: “What I can tell you, and it is a bit upsetting, is that I have soldiers on the ground who have been diverted from saving those people because of inaccurate stories, inaccurate lobbying that have diverted that resource. And that is not something I would be proud of, and I’ve been very straight and consistent throughout.”

Mr Wallace was denying suggestions from friends of Mr Farthing that Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie had overruled him to ensure the animals were able to leave.

He explained the team were expected to arrive at the airport later today, and they could be processed “like anyone else”.

If they arrive with the animals, the UK staff on the ground will seek permission from the Americans for them to enter airside if there is a plane specially chartered by Mr Farthing to remove the animals.

“If the aircraft is not coming, the simple reality is that we can’t put the animals on the RAF plane,” Mr Wallace said.

“The reason for that is the combination with people, but also the numerous air regulations and the third country we would fly to would mean we had all sorts of issues around public health.

“The aeroplane would need to be taken out of circulation which would mean I couldn’t have an aeroplane I desperately need to take hundreds of people out of the next few days.”

Mr Wallace added that earlier this afternoon, he was told by officials that no such charter plane had been hired.

An MP on the call said that one had subsequently been paid for, but Mr Wallace shot back that “two hours ago when my officials talked to them, they had not secured a plane”.

The call took place at 4.30pm on Wednesday.

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