UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said he will “shift heaven and Earth” to get people out of Afghanistan after August 31st, as he confirmed British deaths in the “contemptible” attack at Kabul airport on Thursday evening.
Two British adults and a teenager who was a child of a British national have been confirmed to be among 85 people killed in the attack by at least one Islamic State suicide bomber outside the airport.
Thirteen American soldiers were also among the fatalities.
Speaking to broadcasters after British foreign secretary Dominic Raab confirmed the deaths, Mr Johnson said he felt “a great sense of regret” about those left behind in Afghanistan, as the evacuation process enters its final stages.
He said the losses underline “the urgency” of concluding the evacuation operation and also the the “bravery of our armed services, our troops, everybody else involved”.
“Of course, as we come down to the final hours of the operation there will sadly be people who haven’t got through,” he said. “What I would say to them is that we will shift heaven and Earth to help them get out, we will do whatever we can in the second phase.”
United States forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday after Thursday’s attack.
Two blasts and gunfire rocked the area outside the airport on Thursday evening, witnesses said. Video shot by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies strewn around a canal on the edge of the airport.
A health official and a Taliban official said the toll of Afghans killed had risen to 72, including 28 Taliban members, although a Taliban spokesman later denied that any of their fighters guarding the airport perimeter had been killed.
The US military said 13 of its service members were killed and 18 were wounded in what it described as a complex attack. US officials vowed retribution.
Islamic State, an enemy of the Islamist Taliban as well as the West, said one of its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”.
It was not clear if suicide bombers detonated both blasts or if one was a planted bomb. It was also not clear if gunmen from the terror group were involved in the attack or if the firing that followed the blasts was Taliban guards seeking to control crowds.
Gen Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said American commanders were watching for more attacks by Islamic State, including possibly rockets or car bombs targeting the airport.
“We’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” he said, adding that some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and that he believed “some attacks have been thwarted by them”.
US forces are racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by an August 31st deadline set by president Joe Biden. He says the US long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001 - to root out al-Qaeda militants and prevent a repeat of the September 11th attacks on the US.
Mr Biden said he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike Isis-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for the Kabul airport blast.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said in televised comments from the White House.
Video taken after the attack showed corpses in a waste water canal by the airport fence, some being fished out and laid in heaps while wailing civilians searched for loved ones.
‘Like a tornado’
“I saw bodies and body parts flying in the air like a tornado blowing plastic bags,” said one Afghan witness. “That little water flowing in the sewage canal had turned into blood.”
Taliban guards blocked access to the airport on Friday, witnesses said. “We had a flight but the situation is very tough and the roads are blocked,” said one man on an airport approach road.
British defence secretary Ben Wallace said the threat of attacks would increase as Western troops got closer to completing the huge airlift and leaving.
“The narrative is always going to be, as we leave, certain groups such as Isis will want to stake a claim that they have driven out the US or the UK,” Mr Wallace told Sky News. He also vowed action against Isis wherever it manifests itself.
Isis-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country. The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point says Isis-K includes Pakistanis from other militant groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.
Western countries fear that the Taliban, who once sheltered Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda before it was ousted from power after the US-led 2001 invasion, will allow Afghanistan to turn again into a haven for militants. The Taliban say they will not let the country be used by terrorists.
The United States will press on with evacuations despite the threat of further attacks, Gen McKenzie said, noting that there were still about 1,000 US citizens in Afghanistan.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Friday said the opportunity to get around 75 Irish citizens and residents out of Kabul had effectively closed for now as the airport in the Afghan capital is in the process of shutting down.
“We stayed as long as we safely could,” he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.
The Government has pledged to continue working remotely to ensure those who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave can eventually get out of the country safely. They have been advised not to come to the airport due to the worsening security situation there.
“The truth is, this is going to be an effort that many, many, many countries are involved in. It will be an international community effort to ensure that foreign nationals who are in Afghanistan who want to get out will be facilitated in doing that.”
The pace of flights out of Kabul accelerated on Friday and American passport holders had been allowed to enter the airport compound, according to a Western security official inside it.
In the past 12 days, Western countries have airlifted nearly 100,000 people. But they acknowledge that thousands will be left behind when the last US troops leave next week.
Worries are growing that the remaining population will face a humanitarian crisis with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.
The World Health Organization said it hoped to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistani authorities to get medical supplies in. - Reuters, PA