Two powerful explosions outside Kabul airport killed as many as 20 people Thursday, just hours after Western nations warned of an imminent terror threat and thousands of people gathered hoping for a flight out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The blasts came as the August 31 deadline looms for the United States to withdraw its troops, and for it and other Western countries to end a massive airlift that has already evacuated nearly 100,000 people.
The airport is the only part of the country under foreign control following the Taliban’s return to power on August 15, and huge crowds have massed in the hope of being evacuated.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman, told AFP that “between 13 and 20” people were killed and 52 wounded in the twin blasts, while Kabul hospitals reported six dead and up to 90 wounded.
The Pentagon said “a number” of US troops died in what spokesman John Kirby called a complex attack.
US President Joe Biden had earlier cited an “acute” terrorist threat from the regional chapter of Daesh.
The Taliban condemned the blasts, saying they were in an area under US military control.
“The Islamic Emirate strongly condemns the bombing targeting civilians at Kabul airport,” said a statement released by Mujahid on Twitter.
Images posted on social media, which could not be immediately verified, showed men ferrying injured people to safety in wheelbarrows.
In another picture a boy was seen clutching the arm of a man whose clothes were soaked in blood.
More than 95,000 Afghans and foreigners have fled Afghanistan via the US-led airlift since the hardline Taliban movement took control of the country on August 15.
Despite the US and other warnings of a looming terror threat, huge crowds of people desperate to flee the Taliban continued to throng the airport, their bid for a way out becoming increasingly anxious ahead of the August 31 deadline set by Biden to end evacuations and withdraw troops.
Biden and his aides have not budged on the hard deadline — even as some foreign nations warned they would be forced to leave at-risk Afghans behind.
The Pentagon had earlier Thursday reiterated that operations would continue until the cut-off.
But several Western allies have already wrapped up their airlift operations including Canada, whose government said it was “truly heartbreaking” to leave behind those who wanted to be rescued.
In recent years, Daesh has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in those countries. It has massacred civilians at mosques, shrines, public squares and even hospitals.
But it is pertinent to mention Daesh the Taliban are rivals and they oppose each other.
The Taliban have promised a softer brand of rule from their first stint in power, which ended in 2001 when the United States invaded because they gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda.
But many Afghans fear a repeat of the Taliban’s regime, as well as violent retribution for working with foreign militaries, Western missions or the previous US-backed government.
There are particular concerns for women, who were largely banned from education and employment and could only leave the house with a male chaperone during the group’s 1996-2001 rule.
Some of the Afghans massed outside the airport have foreign passports, visas or eligibility to travel, but most do not.
Several people have died in the chaos around the airport in recent days.
Despite the harrowing scenes, the Taliban have ruled out any extension to next Tuesday’s deadline to pull out foreign troops, describing it as “a red line”.
Kabul evacuation must remain priority after ‘attack’
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said allied forces should continue to evacuate as many vulnerable people as they can from Kabul despite what he branded a “horrific terrorist attack”.
“Our priority remains to evacuate as many people to safety as quickly as possible,” he tweeted after two deadly.
Belgium and the Netherlands have already halted their airlift from the airport and other allied countries are to follow suit in the coming hours and days, despite fears that at-risk people will be left behind.
The president of the European Commission, Charles Michel, echoed Stoltenberg’s call for evacuations to continue.
“Securing safe passage to the airport remains vital,” he tweeted.
The deadly blasts caused “total panic” among Afghans who had thronged outside in the hope of fleeing to safety, away from the country’s new Taliban rulers.
Wounded men in blood-soaked clothes were ferried away from the scene in wheelbarrows, while a boy clutched the arm of a man with a head injury, in images posted on social media.
“Bodies, flesh and people were thrown into a canal nearby,” Milad, who was at the scene of the first blast, told AFP.
“When people heard the explosion there was total panic. The Taliban then started firing in the air to disperse the crowd at the gate,” a second witness said.
“I saw a man rushing with an injured baby in his hands.”
In the confusion, he said he dropped the documents he hoped would help him board a flight with his wife and three children.
“Everyone is tense and the army is taking positions around the airport.”