A group of Afghan schoolgirls have been given permission to attend a robotics competition in Washington DC after their visa applications were rejected twice, US officials announced on Wednesday (12 July).

The White House said President Donald Trump had personally intervened to ensure that the girls were able to participate in the competition organised by NGO First Global which will see school students from 164 countries compete in various robotic games.

A US travel ban is in place for people travelling from six majority-Muslim countries. Afghanistan is not included on the list of banned countries.

The visa applications of the six girls were blocked twice, despite the fact they made it through two rounds of interviews.

After the initial rejection, 14-year-old student Fatema Ghaderyan told AFP that she expected that her team would have to watch the competition on Skype from their hometown of Herat in western Afghanistan.

"We were not a terrorist group to go to America and scare people," she said. "We just wanted to show the power and skills of Afghan girls to Americans."

The visa rejections sparked a backlash with human rights activists accusing the US government of withdrawing from their commitment to advocate for young women in Afghanistan.

Concerns were also raised that President Trump was trying to bar Muslims from the US, regardless of their country of origin.

The president of First Global, Joe Sestak, welcomed the decision. "I am most grateful to the US Government and its state department for ensuring Afghanistan, as well as Gambia, would be able to join us for this international competition this year," he said.

"I truly believe our greatest power is the power to convene nations, to bring people together in the pursuit of a common goal and prove that our similarities greatly outweigh our differences," he added.

The president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted her support for the Afghan team. "I look forward to welcoming this brilliant team of Afghan girls, and their competitors, to Washington DC next week!" she wrote.

Afghan schoolgirls
The teenage girls are taking part in the First Global Challenge, a robotics competition in Washington DC on 16-18 July 2017 REUTERS/Mohammad Shoib