Gunfire fills the air in Kabul as Taliban celebrate airport takeover

As the last US military transport aircraft lifted off from Kabul airport, celebratory gunfire from the Taliban rang out across the Afghan capital on Monday night.

Taliban fighters, who had taken the city without force just two weeks earlier, revelled in the end of America’s longest war and in their own astonishingly swift rise to power.

In a short statement after the US announced its exit just before midnight local time, Taliban spokesperson Qari Yusuf said: “The last US soldier has left Kabul airport and our country gained complete independence.”

Footage from inside the city showed loud gunfire ringing out, lighting up the skyline as Taliban fighters fired into the sky to mark the end of two decades of US military presence.

“The last five aircraft have left, it’s over!” said Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter stationed at Kabul’s international airport. “I cannot express my happiness in words … Our 20 years of sacrifice worked.”

Video shot by a reporter for the LA Times showed Taliban fighters, wearing US army uniforms, entering a former US military hangar at the airport and inspecting the helicopters inside.

Photos showed the fighters taking control the airport and inspecting equipment left behind by the Americans. Reports said they were securing the perimeter, moving barricades, unlocking the airport gates and making an inventory of supplies.

At one point, Taliban leaders symbolically walked across the runway, marking their victory.

“The world should have learned their lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream posted by a militant.

The US said it had disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft and made the so-called C-RAMS (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System) inoperable, so they could not be used again. The military left some equipment for the Taliban in order to run the airport, including two firetrucks, some front-end loaders and aircraft staircases.

“After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province cradling a Kalashnikov rifle. “They have left and now our country is free.”

He added: “It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability.”

Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, similarly praised the takeover in an online video early Tuesday, saying “Thank God all the occupiers have left our country completely”.

At the airport’s eastern gate, a handful of Afghans still tried their luck to get in, hoping for any flight. As of now, however, commercial airlines aren’t flying into the airport and it remains unclear who will take over managing the country’s airspace.

Several of those trying to come into the airport came from Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan that saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting.

One of the men, Hekmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, carried paperwork he said showed he worked as a translator. Hekmatullah said he had waited four days for an opportunity to leave. “But now I don’t know what chances I have,” he said.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said the US would work with Turkey and Qatar – where US diplomatic operations now reside – to help them get the Kabul airport up and running again.

“This would enable a small number of daily charter flights, which is a key for anyone who wants to depart from Afghanistan moving forward,” he said.

He said up to 200 Americans had been left behind who wanted to leave. They and thousands of desperate Afghans who couldn’t get out must rely on the Taliban to allow their departure.

“We have no illusion that any of this will be easy, or rapid,” said Blinken.

The UN security council adopted a resolution on Monday, requiring the Taliban to honour a commitment to let people freely leave Afghanistan in the days ahead, and to grant access to the UN and other aid agencies.

But they did not agree to call for the creation of a “safe zone” in Kabul, as envisaged by French president Emmanual Macron.

Talks are ongoing as to who will now run Kabul airport. The Taliban have asked Turkey to handle logistics while they maintain control of security, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not yet accepted that offer.

It was not immediately clear which airlines would agree to fly in and out of Kabul.

Kabul airport is now without air traffic control services, and US civil aircraft are barred from operating over the country unless given prior authorisation, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday.

The FAA said in a statement that “due to both the lack of air traffic services and a functional civil aviation authority in Afghanistan, as well as ongoing security concerns, US civil operators, pilots, and US-registered civil aircraft are prohibited from operating at any altitude over much of Afghanistan.”

With Associated Press

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