By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -More than 100 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents evacuated to Abu Dhabi from Afghanistan aboard a charter flight are expected to fly on to the United States on Thursday, the State Department and flight organisers said.
U.S. officials on Wednesday were working to verify the accuracy of the list of passengers aboard the charter plane, the State Department said, after the flight's organizers said Washington denied it landing rights.
"Our embassy staff in the UAE has been working around the clock to verify the accuracy of the passenger manifest and is coordinating with DHS/Customs and Border Protection on the ground to ensure the passengers are screened and vetted before they are permitted to fly to the United States," a State Department spokesperson said.
"We expect the passengers to continue onward travel tomorrow morning," the spokesperson added.
Bryan Stern, a founder of the nonprofit group Project Dynamo that chartered the flight out of Kabul, said late on Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency had denied landing rights for the charter flight in the United States.
In a subsequent interview on Wednesday, Stern said that DHS had identified to authorities at Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates one person among the evacuees as "a problem," but he did not know definitively whether this was the reason that landing rights were denied.
"DHS reached out to the airport and said, 'This guy doesn't fly.' They gave me his name. We went and found him. Told him he couldn't fly and took him off the manifest. But I don't know if that was the issue," Stern said.
DHS did not respond to a request for comment.
Stern's group chartered a plane from Kam Air, a private Afghan airline, that flew his group of 117 people, including 59 children, to Abu Dhabi airport.
He and the evacuees were taken off the jet, which has since returned to Kabul, and were being kept in a room with restricted movement under the watch of Emirati police officers, he said.
"We are in custody as we speak in Abu Dhabi. All of us are locked up here together," Stern said.
Stern said they are scheduled to leave on a morning flight on Thursday to Chicago and that the State Department "graciously" had agreed to pay for his group's seats.
Twenty-eight U.S. citizens, 83 lawful permanent residents - green card holders - and six people with U.S. Special Immigration Visas granted to Afghans who worked for the U.S. government during the 20-year war in Afghanistan were aboard the Kam Air flight, Stern said.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Stern's current situation and on the flight cost.
Stern's group is one of several that emerged from ad hoc networks of U.S. military veterans, current and former U.S. officials and others that formed to bolster last month's U.S. evacuation operation they viewed as chaotic and badly organized.
"All U.S.-bound flights must follow the established safety, security and health protocols before they are cleared for departure," a DHS spokesperson said. "This process requires flight manifests to be verified before departure to the U.S. to ensure all passengers are screened appropriately."
President Joe Biden's administration has said its top priority is repatriating Americans and green card holders who were unable to leave Afghanistan in the U.S. evacuation operation last month.
Stern had planned to transfer the passengers to a chartered Ethiopian Airlines plane for an onward flight to the United States that he said the customs agency cleared to land at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The agency then changed the clearance to Dulles International Airport outside Washington before denying the plane landing rights anywhere in the United States, Stern said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk, Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham, Stephen Coates and Richard Pullin)