Fears Rise About Safety of Afghan Airport as U.S. Warns Americans to Stay Away

Fears Rise About Safety of Afghan Airport as U.S. Warns Americans to Stay Away

Families continued to swarm the airport in hopes of getting aboard American military planes. U.S. officials are now worried that Islamic State might launch an attack to damage the Taliban’s sense of control.

Desperate to Flee, Thousands Surround Kabul Airport

Chaotic crowds pressed together at the Kabul airport as thousands tried to escape Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

“Sir ——” “You need to wait.” “Come get the passport.” “Come and get your passport.”

By David Zucchino

Panic and desperation rose Saturday among thousands of Afghans struggling to flee the week-old Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, as gates to the Kabul airport were closed off and the U.S. embassy warned American citizens to stay away from the airport, citing “potential security threats outside the gates.”

The U.S. embassy’s warning that Americans should stay away from the airport added a new level of uncertainty to the volatile situation — which includes reports of growing hunger around the country — just a day after President Biden vowed to get all U.S. citizens to safety.

Assaulted by tear gas and by Taliban gunmen who have beaten people with clubs and whips, throngs of Afghans and their families continued to swarm the airport in hopes of getting aboard American military transport planes evacuating Americans and their Afghan allies. But the hopes of those who pressed against the airport blast walls faded as word spread that President Biden had warned that his effort to evacuate Afghans likely would not “be without risk or loss.”

The security alert instructed Americans still marooned in Kabul not to travel to the airport “unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so.” U.S. officials said the most serious current threat was that Afghanistan’s Islamic State branch would attempt an attack that would both hurt the Americans and damage the Taliban’s sense of control.

Pentagon officials said airport gates had been temporarily closed but were open intermittently to allow Americans with proper credentials to enter. While the Taliban control Kabul and the area around the airport up to the entry gates, American and British troops control direct access through the gates.

Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff told reporters on Saturday that military commanders at the airport were “metering” the flow of Americans, Afghan allies, and other foreigners with proper credentials to ensure everyone was thoroughly screened and vetted.

General Taylor said that in the past 24 hours, 3,800 passengers, roughly half of them Americans, had been flown out. That figure was down from 6,000 evacuated two days ago. American officials had estimated Tuesday that there were 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, but they have not provided updated numbers.

Scrambling to cope with the flood of people trying to leave the country, the Biden administration is making plans to enlist commercial airlines from outside Afghanistan to bring refugees to more bases. The effort could involve 20 airlines and would transport thousands of Afghan refugees arriving at U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates and fly them to other countries for resettlement, officials said.

John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said on Saturday there had been no additional helicopter rescues of Americans in Kabul seeking to flee the Afghan capital since Thursday’s mission, but he did not rule out the possibility of similar operations in the future if local commanders believed they were warranted.

American security officials said they were concerned about the threat of an ISIS attempt to attack military or commercial aircraft.

The security alert came as a 2-year-old girl was trampled to death in a stampede outside an airport gate at about 10 a.m. Saturday, according to her mother, a former employee of an American organization in Kabul. The child was crushed when the crowd surged toward the gate, knocking over the woman and several members of her family, she said.

“My heart is bleeding,” the woman said. “It was like drowning and trying to hold your baby above the water.”

Nearby, several young Afghan men who tried to leap over a Taliban security barrier were savagely beaten by a Taliban gunman, a witness said.

Haroun, 29, an Afghan who lives in France but arrived in Kabul to visit relatives before the Taliban takeover, watched the beating in horror. He had tried and failed to squeeze inside the airport to secure a flight for himself, his wife, and two small children.

“How can I risk a beating like that?” Haroun said as he and his family gave up and rushed back to their temporary Kabul home.

A Taliban official said Saturday that the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had arrived in Kabul for talks aimed a forming a new government. On Tuesday, Mr. Baradar, who oversaw the signing of a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in Qatar in February 2020, arrived at a hero’s welcome in Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace.

Mr. Baradar was expected to begin talks with former President Hamid Karzai and other politicians.

“The negotiations are going on right now,” said Ahmadullah Waseq, deputy of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, who confirmed Mr. Baradar’s arrival. For now, he said, Taliban officials are largely talking among themselves in preparation for the negotiations.

Taliban leaders have not provided details on the type of government they envision, beyond saying that it would adhere to Islamic values, a clear indication the militants intend to impose their strict interpretation of Shariah law.

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