At least seven dead as thousands rush to Kabul airport to flee Taliban

Afghans descended on the airport in huge numbers, desperately trying to find a way out of the country

Kim Sengupta
in Kabul
Monday 16 August 2021 20:11
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Desperate Afghans climb onto plane during takeoff as crowds try to flee Taliban

At least seven people were reported to have been killed as chaos erupted at Kabul airport on Monday, with desperate Afghans trying to flee Taliban rule.

Both US troops and Taliban fighters fired in the air as a desperate crowd rushed there in the hope of getting on civilian flights, most of which had, in fact, been cancelled. Others went on to the military side of the airport where American, British and other foreign governments were airlifting their nationals, as well as some Afghans who had worked for them, out of the country.

Thousands of Afghans had headed to the airport in desperation, with some clinging to a US military transport plane as it taxied on the runway. Footage later appeared to show people falling from the same plane after it took off.

Amid the chaos, US troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating American diplomats and embassy staff.

Initially, five people were reported killed. A witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A US official also said two gunmen had been killed by American forces over the past 24 hours. A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one US soldier was wounded.

The Taliban set up checkpoints on the airport road on Monday and were seen to be checking the identities of some of those trying to get through – a source of fear among those who were trying to get on flights organised by the US and UK for their services to the respective governments.

Even after getting past the Islamist fighters, some of them found it impossible to get to the military side, from where the evacuation was being organised. A former security guard, who said he had a British visa, told The Independent that he and his family were forced back while those without the relevant paperwork simply pushed through.

The 36-year-old man, originally from Kunduz, who had worked with the British in both Helmand and Kabul, said: “We went to the airport on Saturday and waited for six hours, we saw people who did not have visas or papers rush past us, but we couldn’t do anything as we had our young children with us. One of my daughters started feeling very ill. She is four years old, and my wife insisted that we go back home.”

The family – the parents and three children – set off for the airport again on Sunday, but turned back at the Taliban checkpoint.

Afghan people sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport

“Maybe they would not have checked me, maybe they wouldn’t have known about me, but I could not take the chance,” he said. “We went back home. I don’t think it’ll be possible for the British to find me here, I don’t know what to do now.”

Others were angered by the US earlier taking charge of the airport and, it was claimed, halting civilian flights.

Rahima Samsuddine, a teacher, said: “It’s quite simple. I don’t want to live in this country under the Taliban. I didn’t ask the Americans for help. I was meant to go to Istanbul on a flight I had arranged myself. The American troops left our country to the Taliban, now they are preventing Afghans from using their own airport to leave the mess they made.”

More than 70 countries, including European Union member states, called on all parties in Afghanistan to “respect and facilitate” the departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave.

They said: “Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility – and accountability – for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order.”

The Taliban said that people should go back to their homes if they could not get on flights.

“They should not be afraid to do so,” said an official. “The overcrowding at the airport is dangerous.”

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Kabul follows American President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces after 20 years of war.

The speed at which Afghan cities fell in just days, and the fears of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and women’s rights, have sparked criticism of the White House. It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, simply melted away.

Biden is due to address America later today. He is facing a barrage of criticism from both opponents and allies over his handling of the US exit. Earlier in the day, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken discussed the crisis with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and both agreed to continue talks with China, Pakistan and other countries concerned, as well as with the United Nations.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, criticised for being on holiday as Afghanistan collapsed, called the Taliban takeover a “new reality”, and said that he would not rule out sanctions if they did not honour commitments over human rights. In the meantime, Britain has agreed to send another 200 troops to Kabul to help evacuate British citizens and local allies, pushing the number of British armed services personnel there to around 800.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban, said in Twitter post that its fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone. “Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.

Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV that the form of Afghanistan’s new government would soon be made clear. He said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and called for peaceful international relations. “We ask all countries and entities to sit with us to settle any issues,” he said, adding: “We do not think that foreign forces will repeat their failed experience in Afghanistan once again.”

However, many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stonings, whippings and hangings were administered.

With agencies

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