Chaotic Scenes Grip Kabul’s Airport, With Reports of Deaths
(Bloomberg) -- Desperate scenes played out at Kabul’s international airport on Monday as thousands rushed to exit Afghanistan after Taliban fighters took control of the capital, with Reuters reporting at least five people were killed as people tried to forcibly enter planes leaving the country.
Citing witnesses, Reuters said it wasn’t clear whether the victims died of gunshots or in a stampede at Hamid Karzai International Airport. Earlier it reported that U.S. forces fired in the air to prevent thousands of citizens from running onto the tarmac, the last remaining area under American control. Afghanistan’s aviation authority suspended flights out of the country and asked people not to rush to the airport.
The U.S. had announced late Sunday in Washington it was taking steps to secure the airport as it looked to evacuate thousands of American citizens, as well as locally employed staff and their families. The move came a day after American-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban said it would soon declare a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” after seizing the presidential palace.
A passenger inside a Turkish Airlines Istanbul-bound plane on Monday said his flight had been sitting on the tarmac for nearly four hours, unable to take off as huge crowds rushed inside the airport.
“Thousands of Afghan civilians are trying to enter the military section” of the airport “and troops are trying to prevent that,” Emir Sayit said in a telephone interview Monday. “They just used a cargo plane to clear the runway and it was barely able to fly above the crowds.”
Apache choppers were also flying low atop the crowds to deter them, Sayit said. Fire trucks had arrived on the scene, likely to be used as water cannons to disperse the crowds, he added.
Several airlines, including British Airways and Air France-KLM, are avoiding Afghan airspace. CNBC reported that United Airlines has started rerouting its India flights, while Flydubai and Emirates have also suspended flights to Kabul. Cathay Pacific said it hasn’t been flying over Afghanistan for some time but is closely monitoring the situation. A spokesman for Air India said scheduled flights to Kabul cannot fly because Afghanistan is declared closed.
With all the land border crossing now under the control of the rebel group, the airport is the last remaining exit point out of the country. But as panicked visuals from the airport show, there are fears that option may also close soon. Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people swarming the tarmac in an attempt to get on planes.
Top Taliban leaders, meanwhile, declared victory. The group has sought to portray a moderate stance, with a spokesman telling the Associated Press the group wants to form an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
“We have never expected to reach such a victory -- we should show humbleness in front of Allah,” the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said in a video message congratulating his fighters and the nation on Twitter Monday. “Now is the time when we will be tested on how we serve and secure our people, and ensure their good life and future to the best of our ability.”
A Taliban official also texted reporters Monday to say the group intends to maintain law and order in Kabul and has even set up helpline numbers for citizens facing any threat.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse shocked NATO allies and prompted condemnation from both sides of the U.S. political divide over how President Joe Biden’s administration appeared to be blindsided by the Taliban’s easy advance. Dozens of countries issued a joint statement Monday calling “those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan” to allow Afghans and foreigners to depart safely if they wish, to keep borders open and maintain calm.
The Taliban swept through Afghanistan in a matter of weeks, taking advantage of a vacuum left by departing U.S. and NATO forces working against Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to end America’s longest war. U.S. officials said they’re working for an orderly departure.
In a joint statement Sunday, the Pentagon and State Department said the U.S. will expand its presence over the next 48 hours at Kabul’s international airport to nearly 6,000 troops to evacuate thousands of American citizens, as well as locally employed staff and their families.
All Kabul embassy personnel have been safely evacuated to the airport and the U.S. military has secured its perimeter, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement late Sunday.
“We’re relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport,” Blinken said on ABC. “That’s why the president sent in a number of forces to make sure that, as we continue to draw down our diplomatic presence, we do it in a safe and orderly fashion.”
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