Desperate Afghans throng Kabul airport, stalling U.S. evacuations

A man pulls a girl to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday.
REUTERS/Stringer

KABUL – Thousands of Afghans desperate to leave the country thronged Kabul airport where five people were killed on Monday after Taliban insurgents seized the capital, prompting the U.S. military to suspend evacuations to clear the airfield.

Crowds converged on the airport seeking to escape, including some clinging to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied on the runway, according to footage posted by a media company.

The United States temporarily halted all evacuation flights from Kabul to clear people who had converged on the airfield, a U.S. defense official told Reuters.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, did not say how long the pause would last.

Taliban officials have declared the 20-year war over and issued statements aimed at calming the panic that has been building in Kabul as the militants, who ruled from 1996 to 2001, routed the U.S.-backed Afghan army as foreign forces withdrew.

President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday as the bearded Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

It was not immediately clear how the five people died at the airport. A U.S. official said troops had fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight that was set to take U.S diplomats and embassy staff out of the city.

One witness, waiting for a flight out for more than 20 hours, said it was unclear if the five had been shot or killed in a stampede. U.S. officials at the airport were not immediately available for comment.

In a social media video, three bodies could be seen on the ground near what appeared to be an airport side entrance. Reuters could not verify the footage. Another witness said he had also seen five bodies.

People are desperate to flee the country although Taliban officials have said no one will be harmed.

“Everyone is worried,” a former government employee now in hiding in Kabul said. “They’re not targeting people yet but they will, that’s the reality. Maybe in two or three weeks, that’s why people are fighting to get out now.”

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a message on Twitter that their fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.

“Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.

Earlier, Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV that the Afghan people and the Taliban had just witnessed the fruits of their efforts and sacrifices over 20 years.

“Thanks to God, the war is over,” he said.

‘PEACEFUL’

It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.

U.S. officers have long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied front-line soldiers.

Al Jazeera broadcast footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the presidential palace with dozens of fighters.

Naeem said the form of the new regime in Afghanistan would be made clear soon, adding the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and called for peaceful international relations.

The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.

But many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices with their imposition of sharia. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

Both the United Nations and the United States said last week they had received reports that Taliban fighters were executing surrendering government soldiers.

Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, August 16.REUTERS/Stringer

Taliban officials said they had received no reports of any clashes anywhere in the country: “The situation is peaceful,” one said.

Central Kabul streets were largely deserted early on a sunny Monday as waking residents pondered their future.

“I’m in a complete state of shock,” said Sherzad Karim Stanekzai, who spent the night guarding his carpet shop.

BODY OF STOWAWAY?

People thronged to Kabul airport from late on Sunday, wandering around the runways in the dark, pulling luggage and jostling for a place on one of the last commercial flights to leave before U.S. forces took over air traffic control.

On Monday, dozens of men tried to clamber on to an overhead departure gangway to board a plane while hundreds of others milled about, a social media video showed.

Another post showed men inspecting a body on a roof of a person who had allegedly tried to stow away in the undercarriage of an aircraft and fallen to his death. Reuters could not verify the footage.

U.S. forces gave up their big military base at Bagram, 60 kilometers north of Kabul, several weeks ago, leaving Kabul’s airport as their only way out, to the anger of many Afghans.

There was the prospect of chaos in the skies over Afghanistan too. Its civil aviation authority advised transit aircraft to re-route, saying its air space was now uncontrolled.

The Pentagon on Sunday authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them, expanding its security presence on the ground to almost 6,000 troops.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said on Monday that all embassy personnel, including Ambassador Ross Wilson, had been transferred to Kabul airport, mostly by helicopter, to await evacuation, and the American flag had been lowered and removed from the embassy compound.

Western nations, including France, Germany and New Zealand, said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out.

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