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Civilians, Diplomats Seek Evacuation from Chaotic Kabul Airport

By Ayaz Gul, Ayesha Tanzeem August 16, 2021

The Afghan capital's international airport was frenetic Monday with thousands of Afghans looking for a way out of Kabul.

U.S. soldiers were positioned to guard the runway, but civilians pushed past them. The soldiers fired warning shots as they sought to keep the area secure. Videos on social media showed scenes of crowds running on the airport tarmac and jostling for space on a staircase leading up to a plane as people tried to board. Videos also showed some people clinging to a plane as it was getting ready for takeoff.

At least seven people died in the chaos, according the Associated Press.

Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Authority announced the civilian side of the airport was closed until further notice. Several airlines, including United, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa, said they would avoid flying in Afghan airspace, while Emirate and Pakistan International Airlines announced they were halting flights to Kabul.

The airport is also the staging site for diplomats seeking flights out of Afghanistan after evacuating embassies in the capital as Western nations arranging the evacuation of their nationals and some local staff who worked for and aided them since the start of war 20 years ago.

Italy, Saudi Arabia, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia and the Czech Republic are among the nations that have flown out their personnel or announced plans Monday for those flights.

Taliban fighters were patrolling the streets of Kabul on Monday following the gains that saw them capture provincial capitals and sweep through most of the country in a little more than a week.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder and deputy Taliban chief, congratulated the people of Afghanistan and his "mujahedeen (holy warriors)" on their "mammoth gains" in a late Sunday statement. He delivered the Pashto language video message from his office in Doha, Qatar.

"I am here to announce that we are responsible for your lives and all that pertain to everyday living, and to convince you that we will provide everything to make your lives better to the strength that has been provided to us by the Almighty who has granted us such a big victory," Baradar said.

The Taliban moved quickly to appoint a governor of Kabul and deployed fighters to guard official installations across the city.

Residents in Kabul confirmed Monday that Taliban delegates paid visits to various government offices, including hospitals, to persuade worried staff, both men and women, to keep performing their duties without any concerns.

Amir Khan Muttaqi, a top Taliban leader and member of the group's Doha-based political office, also arrived in the Afghan capital, where his delegation held meetings with former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council.

The discussions focused on security and governance-related issues, a Taliban official told VOA on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

"We are in contact with the leaders of the respected Islamic Taliban movement," Karzai said in a post-meeting joint video statement with Abdullah posted on the official Facebook page of the former president.

The discussions were positive and cooperation between the two sides "is very good," Karzai added.

"We hope that the talks we have had with them turn out to be useful," Abdullah said.

The United Nations urged the Taliban to "exercise utmost restraint in order to protect lives" in a statement from the secretary-general Sunday night, adding that all humanitarian organizations must be allowed to provide assistance unimpeded.

The United States and more than 60 other countries issued a statement late Sunday calling on all parties in Afghanistan to "respect and facilitate" the orderly departure of Afghans and foreign nationals who want to leave the country.

"Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility – and accountability – for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order," the statement said. "Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so; roads, airports and border crossing must remain open, and calm must be maintained."

Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, Mansoor Ahmed Khan, told VOA on Monday that his country has been running special flights to Kabul to help evacuate Afghan and expatriate staff at some international organizations, among others.

Khan said the entire staff of the World Bank and the Danish embassy have been relocated to Islamabad from the Afghan capital.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, along with his vice president and other senior officials, flew out of Afghanistan on Sunday.

Ghani issued a statement on Facebook later Sunday, saying he left the country to prevent bloodshed. He landed in Tajikistan, then left soon after for an unknown destination, RFE/RL reported.

"Taliban have won the judgement of sword and guns and now they are responsible for protecting the countrymen's honor, wealth and self-esteem," he wrote. "They are now facing a new historical test; either they will protect the name and honor of Afghanistan, or they will prioritize other places and networks. … It is for Taliban to assure all the people, nations, different sectors, sisters and women of Afghanistan to win the legitimacy and the hearts of the people."

Abdullah posted a video on Facebook, criticizing Ghani.

"I feel the former president left the country and people in a bad position. God will make him accountable," Abdullah said.

Sunday morning, a Taliban delegation engaged prominent Afghan jihadi leaders, politicians and elders in negotiations that culminated in Ghani stepping down from office, said Taliban sources aware of the developments.

The Taliban maintained in the talks that they would not engage with Ghani in any transfer of power, saying he was not "a legitimate" president, insurgent officials said, requesting anonymity for not being authorized to talk to media.

The speed of the Taliban offensive has shocked both locals and the international community. While violence in the country has been high since 2020, after the Taliban signed a deal with the United States, the latest campaign against Afghan cities has been unexpectedly rapid because government forces often did not put up any resistance.

The Taliban gains started with the capital of Nimruz province August 6 and nine days later they had Kabul surrounded from all sides.

VOA's Chris Hannas contributed to this report.

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