By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON -President Joe Biden’s administration is set to send the first batch of Afghan special immigration visa applicants to a military base in Virginia as they wait for the process to be completed, the Pentagon said on Monday.
Last week, the administration said it would soon begin evacuating applicants for special immigration visas whose lives are at risk because of work they did with the U.S. government as translators and in other roles.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about 2,500 Afghans could be housed at Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base about 30 miles (48 km) south of Richmond, Virginia.
Kirby left open the possibility that some of them could be housed in different facilities, but declined to detail what other facilities, if any, were under consideration.
He said that about 700 were those who had applied for the program and the rest were their family members.
Kirby added they were in the final stages of the process and would only be on the base for a few days.
The administration has been under pressure from lawmakers of both parties and advocacy groups to begin evacuating thousands of special immigration visa applicants – and their families – who risk retaliation because of their work with the U.S. government.
That concern has grown with an increase in fighting between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban in recent weeks, with the militants gaining territory and capturing border crossings.
Fifteen diplomatic missions and the NATO representative in Afghanistan urged the Taliban on Monday to halt its military offensives just hours after the rival Afghan sides failed to agree on a ceasefire at a peace meeting in Doha.
The Special Immigrant Visa program is available to people who worked with the U.S. government or the American-led military force during the Afghanistan war.
It is expected that the initial evacuation will be carried out by civilian chartered aircraft and will include Afghans who are waiting for their visa applications to be processed and their families.
Biden has set a formal end to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan for Aug. 31 as he looks to disengage from a conflict that began after al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.