Wounded Afghan men receive treatment at a hospital after yesterday’s explosions outside airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer
Aug 27 (Reuters) – U.S. forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee new Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday after an Islamic State attack killed 92 people including 13 U.S. service members just outside Kabul airport.
General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said U.S. commanders were watching for more attacks by Islamic State, including possibly rockets or car bombs targeting the airport.
“We’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” McKenzie said, adding that some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and he believed “some attacks have been thwarted by them”.
Thursday’s attack took place near the airport gates where thousands of people have gathered to try to get inside the airport and onto evacuation flights since the Taliban took control of the country on Aug. 15.
U.S. and allied forces are racing to complete evacuations of their citizens and vulnerable Afghans and to withdraw from Afghanistan by an Aug. 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.
Most of the more than 20 allied countries involved in airlifting Afghans and their own citizens out of Kabul said they had completed evacuations by Friday.
Britain said it was in the final stages while the United States said it would continue airlifting people right up to next Tuesday but will prioritize the removal of U.S. troops and military equipment on the last couple of days.
Islamic State (ISIS), an enemy of the Islamist Taliban as well as the West, said one of its suicide bombers had targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army” on Thursday.
The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that the attack was carried out by one suicide bomber, not two as earlier thought.
The attack underlined the realpolitik facing Western powers in Afghanistan: Engaging with the Taliban who they have long sought to fend off may be their best chance to prevent the country sliding into a breeding ground for Islamist militancy.
The number of Afghans killed has risen to 79, a hospital official told Reuters on Friday, adding more than 120 were wounded. A Taliban official said the dead included 28 Taliban members, although a spokesman later denied any of their fighters guarding the airport perimeter had been killed.
It was unclear if ISIS gunmen were involved in the attack or if the firing that followed the blast was Taliban guards firing into the air to control crowds.
Hard-pressed medical staff in the three operating theatres of Kabul’s Emergency Hospital worked through the night treating casualties.
“Everybody is concerned at this moment in Kabul, nobody knows what to expect in the coming hours,” said Rossella Miccio, president of the Italian aid group that runs the hospital.
‘HUNT YOU DOWN’
Biden said on Thursday evening he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility. The group has killed dozens of people in attacks in Afghanistan in the past 12 months.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said in televised comments from the White House.
Biden, criticized at home and abroad for the chaos around the final U.S. troop withdrawal even before Thursday’s attack, says the United States long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001.
The U.S.-led invasion toppled the then-ruling Taliban, punishing them for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks that year.
Taliban guards blocked access to the airport on Friday, witnesses said. “We had a flight but the situation is very tough and the roads are blocked,” said one man on an airport approach road.
Another 12,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan on Thursday, raising the total airlifted abroad by the forces of Western countries since Aug. 14 to about 105,000, the White House said on Friday.
France has held talks with Taliban representatives in recent days in Kabul and in Doha to ease its ongoing evacuations, the foreign ministry said on Friday.
The United States will press on with evacuations despite the threat of further attacks, McKenzie said, noting that there were still about 1,000 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan.
The pace of flights accelerated on Friday and American passport holders had been allowed to enter the airport compound, according to a Western security official inside the airport.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the threat of attacks would increase as Western troops got closer to completing the huge airlift and leaving.
“The narrative is always going to be, as we leave, certain groups such as ISIS will want to stake a claim that they have driven out the U.S. or the UK,” Wallace told Sky News. He also vowed action against ISIS wherever it manifests itself.
ISIS-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country. The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point says ISIS-K includes Pakistanis from other militant groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.
Russia called on Friday for rapid efforts to help form an inclusive interim government in Afghanistan after Thursday’s attack, saying ISIS was trying to capitalise on chaos in the country and endangering everyone.
Up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland by year-end, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday, appealing to all neighbouring countries to keep their borders open for those seeking safety.
There are also growing worries that Afghans will face a humanitarian emergency with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.
Medical supplies will run out within days in Afghanistan, the World Health Organization said on Friday, adding that it hopes to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistan.
Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Stephen Coates and Mark Heinrich; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.