Britain, the United States and Australia have issued urgent warnings telling their nationals to move away from Kabul airport as quickly as possible due to “terrorist” threats. It comes as thousands of people mass there in the hope of fleeing the country that fell to the Taliban.
The three countries published very specific and almost identical warnings simultaneously overnight from Wednesday to Thursday.
“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,” reads the new UK government advice.
UK armed forces minister James Heappey said on Thursday said there was a “very credible” report of an “imminent” threat of an attack on Kabul airport, possibly “within hours”.
On Thursday Australia urged its citizens in Afghanistan not to travel to Kabul’s airport, citing a “very high threat of a terrorist attack”.
The US Embassy in Kabul warned Americans away from three specific airport gates over unspecified “security threats outside the gates”. “US citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately,” Washington’s statement says.
Several European countries are now winding down their evacuation operations. France says its airlift will cease by Friday night. Belgium and Poland have already ended theirs, as have Hungary and Denmark. “It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul,” warned Danish defence minister Trine Bramsen.
During a virtual summit of G7 leaders on Tuesday, President Biden cited a serious risk of attack by an offshoot of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) jihadist group at the airport, as he rejected calls to extend the US military presence beyond August 31.
The US defence department said on Wednesday it estimated that more than 10,000 people were at Kabul airport trying to leave Afghanistan. Many Afghans are terrified of being left in the hands of the Taliban.
Troops have been worried about the large crowds outside. While the Taliban and others have tried to control them, there’s no formal screening process on the way to the airport as there was under Afghanistan’s former government.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex told RTL radio on Thursday that France will no longer be able to get people out of Kabul airport beyond Friday evening. Earlier a French government spokesperson said the airlift would continue for “as long as possible” ahead of the August 31 deadline.
Belgium announced that the evacuations of its nationals and the Afghans it was protecting had ceased on Wednesday evening.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo tweeted that the decision was taken in agreement with European partners and was due to “the evolution of the situation in Afghanistan”. Five flights operated between Kabul and the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Wednesday, he said.
Hungary says its army has evacuated all Hungarian citizens from Afghanistan of which the defense ministry is aware. Defence Minister Tibor Benko told a press conference on Thursday that 540 people, among them 57 Afghan families including 180 children, had been evacuated to Hungary from Kabul.
Several European countries including Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Russia each said they managed to fly hundreds more people out of Afghanistan or the region on Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Taliban have given assurances that the Taliban had agreed to allow Americans and Afghans considered at risk to leave the country after the US deadline of August 31.
He did not specify how their departure would be organised, however, given that US forces are due to leave the country by the end of the month.
Germany also said on Wednesday that it had received similar assurances from the Taliban. The country’s envoy to Afghanistan Markus Potzel said they came from the deputy head of the Taliban political bureau in Qatar, Sher Abbas Stanekzai.
“Director Stanekzai assured me that Afghans with legal documents will continue to have the opportunity to travel on commercial flights after 31 August,” Potzel said on Twitter.
But Victoria Fontan, a French university professor evacuated from Kabul, told Euronews that her group of foreigners had been put under “house arrest” by the Taliban who had demanded money and other belongings in return for access to the airport. What was supposed to be safe passage was in practice “extortion”, she added.
Germany’s top military commander has said 21 German citizens were picked up during an overnight helicopter mission in Afghanistan that was flown by US forces, with German forces picking up the evacuees.
Turkey, meanwhile, has announced the withdrawal of its soldiers who were guarding Kabul airport alongside the US military, abandoning its proposal to continue to provide security at Kabul airport after the withdrawal of US forces.
Washington believes about 1,500 American citizens remain in Afghanistan, 12 days into a massive US military airlift. Secretary of State Blinken told a news conference that another 4,500 Americans had been evacuated.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country had helped evacuate around 4,000 people from the airport since Wednesday last week including 1,200 overnight, triple the number he said he thought was possible last week.
“It remains a highly dangerous environment,” Morrison added.
The Taliban has said Western evacuation operations must end by August 31, and any delay would be a “violation”. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, had previously accused the United States and its allies of emptying the country of its most qualified people by evacuating the Afghans who worked with them.
Many of them, often urban and educated, fear reprisals — and that the Islamists will establish the same type of fundamentalist and brutal regime as they did when in power between 1996 and 2001.