By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — An attack outside Kabul airport claimed by Islamic State (IS) extremist group has killed 12 U.S. troops and many Afghans, bringing more chaos to the scene ahead of an August 31 deadline for the completion of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said the 12 servicemen were killed and 15 others were wounded after two suicide bombs struck near the Abbey Gate, where a huge number of Afghans had amassed in the hopes of getting on a flight out of the war-torn country, despite several security warnings.
Gunmen also opened fire on civilians and military forces, McKenzie said, adding that U.S. forces were prepared for more attacks even as the evacuation continued.
The IS group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that one of its suicide bombers had targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army.”
The United States and its allies had been urging civilians to stay away from the airport because of a threat of a suicide attack by IS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter, which has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in those countries in recent years.
A Taliban spokesman said that between 13 and 20 people were killed and 52 wounded in the twin blasts outside Kabul airport. AP cited an unidentified Afghan official as saying that at least 60 Afghans had lost their lives and over 140 others were wounded.
Emergency, an Italian nongovernmental organization that operates hospitals in Afghanistan, said it had received at least 60 patients wounded in the attack, in addition to six who were dead when they arrived.
“Influx of patients is continuous. It hasn’t stopped so far. We received men, women and children. They are all Afghan civilians,” the charity tweeted.
Afghanistan’s TOLOnews agency posted to Twitter images said to be from the aftermath of the attack appearing to show wounded people with bloodied clothes being moved in wheelbarrows.
The Taliban said that it “strongly condemns the bombing targeting civilians at Kabul airport.”
The White House said that President Joe Biden will address the nation later on August 26. The U.S. president has been under intense pressure to extend the evacuations beyond August 31, but has cited the threat of attack for sticking to his deadline.
AP quoted U.S. officials saying the American servicemen killed in the attack included 11 Marines and one Navy medic.
While the U.S. military is saddened by their deaths, evacuations from Afghanistan are continuing, McKenzie said, adding that about 1,000 U.S. citizens are estimated to still be in the country.
Asked how the bombers were able to approach U.S. forces, the general said there had “clearly been a failure” from the Taliban forces checking people outside the airport.
He said the US would “try to make all our practices better as we go forward.”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also vowed to continue the evacuation effort following what he called the “barbaric” terrorist attack.
“We are going to keep going up until the last moment” as the August 31 deadline rapidly approaches, he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said France will seek to protect and evacuate French nationals, people from allied countries, and Afghans “as long as the conditions will be met” at the airport.
A massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before Taliban forces captured Kabul on August 15, capping a swift advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.
The United States has been racing to carry out the airlift before its military is set to fully withdraw from the country on August 31.
It was unclear how many Westerners who wanted to leave were still in Kabul, but one Western official said an estimated 1,500 U.S. passport and visa holders were trying to get to the airport, a figure also advanced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The massive airlift had been accelerating as foreign nationals and their families, as well as some Afghans who worked for the international effort, try to flee hard-line Taliban rule.
On August 26, France said it will no longer be able to evacuate people from Afghanistan from the evening of August 27 onward, while other NATO members — including Canada, Germany, Belgium, and Hungary — said they have ended their operations to extricate personnel and Afghan citizens who aided them.
Russia said it had evacuated around 360 of its citizens from Afghanistan on August 25, while some 100 Russians remain in Afghanistan and have chosen to stay there for now.
While Western troops were working inside the airport to keep the evacuation moving as fast as possible, Taliban fighters guarded the perimeter.
Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, an Afghan official working at the Directorate of Civil Aviation at the Kabul airport, told Reuters before the blasts that it would be easy for a suicide bomber to attack the corridors, and that warnings are unlikely to be heeded because of people’s “determination to leave this country” is so great “that they are not scared to even die.”
“Everyone is risking their life,” he said.
Since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have flown out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 in the past 24 hours. The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.
Blinken told a news conference in Washington there was no deadline for the effort to help people who want to leave, both Americans and others, and that it would continue for “as long as it takes.”
The Taliban has said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month and ruled out any extension of the deadline. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume.
The Taliban has promised to return Afghanistan to a secure state and to exercise a softer brand of rule, pledging it won’t seek revenge on those who opposed the group or roll back progress on human rights.
But many Afghans fear a repeat of the Taliban’s brutal interpretation of Shari’a law, as well as violent retribution for working with foreign militaries, Western missions, or the U.S.-backed government.