Afghans crowd airport gates as evacuation efforts wind down

Anxious crowds of Afghans still hoping to join the western evacuation airlift from Kabul have crowded airport gates less than a day after scores were killed in a devastating Islamic State double bombing.

As flights from Afghanistan resumed with fresh urgency on Friday, amid fears that the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) affiliate could attack again, more countries announced they had completed their evacuations with only days to go before the deadline for withdrawal by US-led troops.

While the US has said more than 105,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul, as many as 1,000 Americans and tens of thousands more Afghans are struggling to leave in one of the largest airlifts in history.

Sweden was among the countries ending their evacuation missions on Friday, the foreign minister, Ann Linde, announced.

“All in all, some 1,100 people have been evacuated by the foreign ministry. All locally employed embassy staff and their families have been evacuated,” Linde told a news conference.

The UK’s evacuation efforts were also expected to end on Friday, while the last German civilian plane carrying Afghans fleeing Taliban rule landed in Frankfurt on Friday.

With an end to the often chaotic airlift imminent, Afghans continued to arrive at the airport on Friday, even as countries shut down their visa processing.

The scenes at the airport, with people standing knee-deep in sewage and families thrusting documents and even young children toward US troops behind razor wire, have horrified many around the world as efforts continued to help people escape.

Jamshad, who gave just his one name, arrived early on Friday with his wife and three small children, clutching an invitation to a western country he did not want to name.

This was his first attempt to leave, he said: “After the explosion, I decided I would try because I am afraid now there will be more attacks and I think now I have to leave.

Another man, Ahmadullah Herawi, said: “Believe me, I think that an explosion will happen any second or minute, God is my witness, but we have lots of challenges in our lives. That is why we take the risk to come here and we overcome fear.”

As the evacuation began to wind down, the US head of Central Command, GenFrank McKenzie said further attempted attacks were expected.

The US president, Joe Biden, has vowed to complete the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan despite the deadly suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport.

He promised to avenge the deaths of 13 US service members killed in the bombing, declaring to the extremists responsible. He said: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Following Thursday’s attack, dozens of Taliban members carrying heavy weapons patrolled the airport perimeter, and the group’s leadership asked Turkey to operate arrivals and departures, with Turkey saying it had not decided on the issue after meeting with the group at Kabul airport.

Turkey had been in talks before the former Afghan government’s collapse to secure and run Kabul’s strategic airport after the US withdrawal, but on Wednesday it started pulling troops out of Afghanistan – an apparent sign of Ankara abandoning this goal.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has faced domestic criticism for Turkey’s engagement with the insurgent group, but has countered that Turkey does not have the “luxury” to stand idly by in the volatile region.

“You cannot know what their expectations are or what our expectations are without talking. What’s diplomacy, my friend? This is diplomacy,” Erdoğan said.

He added: “We will make a decision after the administration (in Afghanistan) is clear.”

Erdoğan said a meeting with the Taliban lasting more than three hours took place at the Turkish embassy in Kabul, without saying when the meeting took place. “If necessary, we will have the opportunity to hold such meetings again,” he said.

The president added that the evacuation of Turkish troops from Kabul, which began on Wednesday, was continuing. He condemned Thursday’s attacks.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Biden said he had ordered the US military to draw up plans to hit back at those responsible.

“We have some reason to believe we know who they are,” he said, adding he had instructed military commanders to develop plans to strike Isis “assets, leadership and facilities”.

The Isis affiliate in Afghanistan has carried out many attacks on civilian targets in the country in recent years. It is far more radical than the Taliban, who seized power less than two weeks ago. The most prominent American attack on the group came in April 2017 when the US dropped the largest conventional bomb in its arsenal on an Isis cave and tunnel complex.

The group more recently is believed to have concentrated in urban areas, which could complicate US efforts to target it without harming civilians.

Amid growing warnings of a humanitarian crisis, aid agencies have stepped up their efforts to help the country.

With warnings that medical supplies will run out in Afghanistan within days, the World Health Organization said on Friday it hoped to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistani authorities within that timeframe.

Trauma kits and emergency supplies for hospitals, as well as medicines for treating chronic malnutrition among children are among priority items, said Rick Brennan, the WHO’s regional emergency director, describing the needs as “enormous and growing”.

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