US officials have confirmed the deaths of 13 US service members after two ISIS-K suicide bomb attacks on Kabul airport.
A series of blasts in the country’s capital also injured 18 US troops providing support for the evacuations of US personnel and Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Officials say that 60 Afghans waiting to be evacuated were also killed and more than 140 were injured.
Earlier on Thursday the Pentagon said that 11 Marines and a Navy medic were among the dead, but US Central Command has not confirmed the service of the latest fatality.
Gen Kenneth McKenzie of US Central Command said that his “working assumption” was that the blast occurred as a suicide bomber was attempting to pass through a security checkpoint at the airport gates.
“The situation on the ground is still evolving, and I’m constantly being updated,” added President Joe Biden during a national address.
“We’re outraged, as well as heartbroken,” the president continued. “The lives we lost today were lives given in the service of liberty, in the service of security, in the service of others.”
Directing a message at the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack: Mr Biden said: “We will not forgive, we will not forget.”
An official with the Taliban said that some of the group’s militants, who have been acting as a de facto security force in the areas surrounding the airport as a result of their takeover of Kabul, were also killed in the explosion. US officials believe the attack was carried out by members of Isis-k, the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon news briefing.
“[T]he Islamic Emirate strongly condemns the bombing of civilians at Kabul airport,” a spokesperson for the Taliban said, adding “the Islamic Emirate is paying close attention to the security and protection of its people, and evil circles will be strictly stopped.”
Gen McKenzie added at the news briefing that the US would retaliate against the perpetrators of the attack if it could locate them.
“Yes, if we can find who is associated with this, we will go after them,” he said.
“Ultimately, Americans have got to be in danger” in order for Afghans seeking evacuation to receive proper security checks, he noted, while stressing that US forces would work to improve their security procedures.
Isis-k claimed responsibility for the attack through its Amaq News Agency.
Adam Khan, an Afghan waiting outside the airport, said the first blast went off in a crowd of people waiting to enter the airport. Khan, who was about 30 yards away, said several people appeared to have been killed or wounded, including some who lost body parts.
A former interpreter with UK forces who was with his wife, and two young children waiting for an evacuation flight reportedly said: “It was like doomsday, injured people everywhere”.
Emergency, a volunteer group that runs war surgery hospitals and first aid posts across Afghanistan, said some people were dead on arrival. “We have activated all mass casualty protocols,” it said.
Another witness to the explosion described the horrific scene in an interview with Fox News.
“Inside the crowd, a lot of people got hurt,” said the man, who was identified by the network as a Afghan national and special immigrant visa (SIV) applicant who had previously worked with US forces in the country.
“I had a baby girl-- she was 5 years old. She died right in my hand,’ he continued explaining that the child belonged to another couple. “I tried to help her.”
Thousands of Afghans have been gathered at the airport for days trying to escape from the country since the Taliban takeover earlier this month.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was first to confirm the news of the deaths around noon eastern US time on Thursday after initial reports of the blasts came in.
Mr Johnson told reporters that he could ‘confirm that there’s been a barbaric terrorist attack” in Kabul, adding that “members of the US military have, very sadly, lost their lives”.
The prime minister added that the UK would continue evacuations, while a report from the Military Times indicated that US forces were welding some gates shut at the airport to prevent entry. The US is continuing evacuations as well, according to US Central Command and the Pentagon.
“Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission,” said Gen McKenzie.
“Today is a hard day...the thing I come back to is the remarkable professionalism on the ground,” he added.
One of the blasts occurred in an active wastewater canal where Afghans were lined up in waist-deep water to enter the airport, according to the Military Times. Another occurred near the Baron hotel where UK forces are conducting security checks on civilians seeking evacuation, though a senior British official told The Independent no UK service members were injured.
The final evacuees who have been approved for travel to the UK, along with a few still undergoing security checks at the Baron hotel, are expected to be flown out of Afghanistan by the end of Friday, with the withdrawal of British officials, diplomats and troops expected to be completed by the end of the weekend.
None of those being processed at the Baron under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) were injured by the bombs, one of which detonated close to the hotel. And there were no casualties or injuries among UK troops or officials.
A senior British source said it was now “highly unlikely” that any more people would be admitted into the airport to seek evacuation on RAF flights.
In this evening’s Cobr meeting, Mr Johnson was briefed on whether the withdrawal should be accelerated in response to the attack, but concluded that this was not necessary as the mission was already close to its end and being terminated as quickly and efficiently as was possible.
Mr Biden, who was scheduled to meet on Thursday with Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, cleared his agenda in the wake of the attack and huddled with his team in the Situation Room.
US lawmakers reacted to the news of the blast with shock. Some Republicans used the issue to amplify criticism of the Biden administration that had been growing for days as the evacuations unfolded.
“This is the nightmare we feared and its why for weeks, military, intelligence, and congressional leaders from both parties have begged the President to stand up to the Taliban and push out the airport perimeter,” said Sen Ben Sasse, a moderate Republican.
He went on to say that Mr Biden now faced a “clear choice”: the extension of the August 31 deadline for withdrawing US troops, or “leav[ing] our people behind in your retreat”.
“This is devastating and incredibly sad to see. Our marines were bravely performing the critical mission of evacuating Americans. While the effort is worthwhile, [Mr Biden] must ensure everything is being done to protect and support those evacuating and helping them. So far, I have been very disappointed with the actions of this administration,” added West Virginia’s Sen Shelley Moore Capito.
Rep Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, added that he was “devastated” to hear about the attack but stopped short from calling for a withdrawal deadline extension
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