UK embassy ‘told Afghans to go to Kabul airport hours before suicide bombing’

Advice to use Abbey Gate entrance was ‘confusing and conflicting,’ says Afghan women

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 01 September 2021 10:53
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Related video: Minister warned on 26 August attack on Kabul airport could happen

UK embassy officials in Afghanistan told Afghans to go to Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate entrance only hours before a deadly suicide bombing attack in the area, according to a report.

The British embassy instructed some people trying to flee the country to “use the Abbey Gate [near] to the Baron Hotel” last Thursday, the day of the attack, emails have shown.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had changed its advice last Wednesday, advising that people leave Kabul airport because of the “high threat” of a terrorist attack.

The UK government said it was now investigating the emails to work out how messages “against this advice” could have been sent to Afghans.

Emails seen by BBC’s Newsnight show Afghans eligible for evacuation were told to head for Abbey Gate hours before the attack – with one women describing the advice as “confusing and conflicting”.

Another unnamed Afghan, a former interpreter, told the BBC he decided not to ignore advice telling him to be at Abbey Gate because he did not “feel safe.” He added: “It would be madness to go there and that saved my life. It was our own judgement that saved our lives."

The FCDO had updated its advice on 25 August, stating: “There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack. Do not travel to Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. If you are in the area of the airport, move away to a safe location and await further advice.”

The UK’s armed forces minister James Heappey said on the morning of 26 August, the day of the twin suicide bombings, that people should stay away from airport. He warned that the threat of an attack was “credible and imminent”.

Almost 200 people were killed in the suicide bombing attack at the outside Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate area – including two UK citizens and 13 US soldiers.

US forces decided to keep Abbey Gate entrance open longer than they wanted to allow British officials to continue evacuating personnel, according to leaked claims from the Pentagon.

But both No 10 and foreign secretary Dominic Raab have said it was “just not true” to suggest the UK had called for Abbey Gate to be left open for part of its exit operation.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We did all we could to get individuals to safety in incredibly difficult and changing circumstances.

“We changed travel advice as soon as an increased terror threat was established and ensured that all call handlers communicated this advice as well as making it clear on the ground where we advised the crowds to disperse.

The government spokesperson added: “We are investigating how an email against this advice could have been sent.”

It comes as No 10 confirmed that Boris Johnson’s representative for Afghan transition was in Doha to meet with Taliban representatives to discuss the fate of British nationals and Afghan staff who missed out on evacuation before the final Western troops left Kabul airport.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace told MPs that Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials have been instructed to use phone calls and messages to get into contact with as many of them as possible – calling it “Dunkirk by WhatsApp”.

Meanwhile, foreign secretary Dominic Raab prepares to endure a 90-minute grilling from the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said Mr Raab was responsible for “the biggest foreign policy failing in a generation”, and demanded his resignation should he fail to tell MPs how he intended to put it right.

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