Evacuations Stall Amid Death And Chaos At Kabul Airport, Biden To Speak
By RFE/RL's Radio Azadi August 16, 2021
Seven people have been reported killed as thousands of Afghans flooded the runways and terminals of the Kabul airport amid chaos, attempting to leave after Taliban militants seized control of the country ahead of the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces after a presence of nearly two decades.
The Pentagon said on August 16 that U.S. troops killed two people after they were seen "menacingly" brandishing weapons. Officials were not able to say how the five others died, but video from the airport showed hundreds of people trying to force their way onto a moving aircraft, some clinging to landing gear as it attempted to take off. U.S. officials said troops fired warning shots into the air to try and disperse the crowds around the flight, which was taking U.S. diplomats and embassy staff out of the country.
U.S. authorities said they were forced to close down the airport temporarily to restore order and clear the airfield of people so that flights could resume.
In sharp contrast to the situation at the airport, streets in the capital itself were mainly calm as Taliban soldiers patrolled the capital. The heavily fortified diplomatic Green Zone in Kabul appeared to be a ghost town, with countries rushing to evacuate their embassies.
Dozens of governments called for calm to allow for the departure of hundreds of foreign nationals and Afghans seeking to leave the country after the militants toppled the Western-backed government over the weekend.
"Afghanistan stands at a crossroad. Security and well-being of its citizens, as well as international security, are at play," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told journalists as he prepared to convene a meeting of EU foreign ministers for August 17.
EU officials are pleading with the bloc's 27 capitals to give visas to Afghan workers at the bloc's mission in Kabul and their families, estimated to number between 500 and 600, European diplomats said.
The government collapsed, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing abroad on August 15 as the Taliban captured Kabul -- the last major city in Afghanistan to hold out against an offensive that accelerated in the space of days as the militants rapidly gained control of territories across the country.
U.S. troops were in control of Kabul's international airport, where commercial flights were suspended on August 16, stranding many Afghans who sought to flee.
The Hamid Karzai Airport authority said it was forced to cancel all remaining commercial flights "to prevent looting and plundering." The Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority announced that Kabul airspace had been released to the military and that it advised transit aircraft to reroute.
A number of major airlines said they had stopped using Afghanistan airspace in response to the directive.
The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden was returning to Washington from the nearby Camp David presidential retreat to make a statement at 3:45 Washington time on the latest developments.
For months Biden had downplayed the prospect of the Taliban taking control following an announcement in April that the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by August 31. On August 14 he defended his decision, saying an "endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me."
He now faces rising criticism, especially from Republicans in Congress, after the insurgents' rapid offensive captured most of Afghanistan's major cities in less than a week.
"It is certainly the case that the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated," national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview on NBC's Today show on August 16.
"At the end of the day, despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan security forces, we could not give them the will and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country," he added.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taliban and all other parties to exercise "utmost restraint" in order to protect the lives of Afghans and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Guterres said the rights of women and girls must be protected, in a reference to the Taliban, which imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law during their 1996-2001 rule. The UN chief will address the body's Security Council later on August 16 over the situation in Afghanistan.
"The world is following events in Afghanistan with a heavy heart and deep disquiet about what lies ahead," Guterres said, noting that the Taliban had so far respected the safety of UN personnel in the country.
The UN humanitarian office said members of the humanitarian community remain committed to helping the millions of Afghans needing assistance and are staying in the country despite the "highly complex" security environment.
More than 18.4 million people were already in need of assistance before more than 550,000 were displaced by conflict this year, according to the office, known as OCHA.
Many fear reprisals from the Taliban for their cooperation with government authorities or for working with foreign governments during the two decades the international coalition was present in Afghanistan. Those fears sparked desperate scenes at the airport as they sought a way out of the country.
Ireland's Ambassador to the UN chided the Security Council for failing to heed warnings over the situation in Afghanistan, saying "now we will have to address the consequences."
A member of the Taliban administration told Reuters that the group had started collecting weapons from civilians because people no longer need them for personal protection, as the Taliban sought to reassure the international community that Afghans should not fear them.
In a message posted to social media, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar called on the militants to remain disciplined, saying: "Now it's time to test and prove, now we have to show that we can serve our nation and ensure security and comfort of life."
Mohammad Naeem, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar, where the group has a political office, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that the militants were discussing the future of Afghanistan with a number of Afghan politicians.
Deputy national-security adviser Jon Finer said in an interview on MSNBC that the United States remained engaged in diplomatic conversations with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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