Afghans flock to airport despite ISIS threat, the day after more than 100 people were killed in the blast

KABUL, Afghanistan – People returned to Kabul airport on Friday in an increasingly desperate attempt to escape the country a day after a terrorist attack killed more than 100 civilians and 13 U.S. officials.

Evacuation flights resumed at a rapid pace as U.S. forces prepared for several attacks ahead of President Joe Biden’s deadline Tuesday to withdraw from the country.

A Navy doctor, Maxton Soviak, was among the Americans killed in Thursday’s attack outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, his family said in a statement.

They described him as “a wonderful son” who loved his family and community and said words could not “express how broken we are with this news.”

The Army also confirmed in a statement that a soldier had been killed. It said no further information would be released “until 24 hours after relatives are notified.”

The number of civilians killed had grown to 113 early Friday, according to an unnamed source in the Afghan Ministry of Health. At least 180 people were injured.

Although U.S. forces are rushing to get many Americans and Afghan allies out of the country, the State Department is considering whether to retain a diplomatic presence in Kabul, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The Taliban is asking the nations of the world to maintain their ties to Afghanistan, and the Biden administration is still deciding how many, if any, diplomats Washington should keep in the war-torn nation.

In a letter sent to all State Department staffers on Friday, Minister Antony Blinken reminded his colleagues of the bravery shown every day by US Marines tasked with keeping Americans safe abroad.

“The State Department has a special relationship with the U.S. Marines,” Blinken said in the letter, which NBC News has received. “They guard our embassies around the world, enabling us to carry out diplomacy in high-risk places. We could not do our job without them. And still in Kabul now, they are on guard. “

The State Department and the Pentagon are still shaking after Thursday’s airport attack, for which the Islamic State terrorist group’s Afghan subsidiary, ISIS-K, claimed responsibility.

Video taken in the wake showed the bodies of civilians in a sewer pit, their efforts to escape the rule of a militant group destroyed by a far more radical terrorist group.

Mohamed Safer, 27, said he was standing outside the airport where there was no Taliban when he was hit during the attack.

“It was my fate that the bullet didn’t go straight (through me) and I’m alive,” he told NBC News.

Safes were taken to a hospital. “Everyone was on their way out of the country. I was one of them,” he said. “I just wanted to get away.”

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The airport has been a hub for violent and chaotic scenes since the Taliban took control of Kabul almost two weeks ago. The group’s warriors have patrolled the area outside and used force at checkpoints, but are struggling to bring order or screen those seeking access.

Every day, civilians have gathered in the stifling heat and risked everything in an attempt to get out of the country – or make sure their children do.

On Friday, the crowds were smaller and faced an even bigger task.

One man, Ahmadullah Herawi, told the Associated Press that he thought an explosion could occur at any time, but he had nevertheless risked going to the airport.

“Believe me, I think an explosion will happen any second or minute, God is my witness,” he said. “But we have lots of challenges in our lives. That’s why we take the risk of coming here, and we overcome the fear.”

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the United States believed there were still “specific, credible” threats against the airport.

“We are certainly prepared and expect future trials,” he said, adding that the United States “monitored these threats, very, very specifically, practically in real time.”

Kirby said just under 7,000 Afghans had entered the United States since the operation began.

Army Major General William Taylor also said Friday that there had been only one explosion, at the airport gate, not at a nearby hotel, as U.S. officials had said Thursday.

“I can confirm to you that we do not believe there was another explosion at or near the Baron Hotel that it was a suicide bomber,” he said.

He added that US troops wounded in the attack were now being treated in Germany.

Biden promised on Thursday to continue the evacuation efforts and stuck to its August 31 deadline for U.S. forces to complete their withdrawal despite pressure to extend it.

The president promised to respond “by force” to the terrorists behind the attacks in an emotional speech from the White House.

But some U.S. allies have said they are closing their airlifts.

Britain said on Friday that its evacuations from Afghanistan would be completed within hours and its main treatment center for eligible Afghans has been closed. Two British nationals and the child of a third British citizen were killed in Thursday’s attack, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Friday.

The Spanish government also said it had completed its evacuation operation. And France said it would end its evacuation operation “soon” but could try to extend it until after Friday night.

After a shaky start, the pace of evacuation has increased in recent days.

More than 105,000 people have been evacuated since August 14, according to the White House, and about 110,600 people have been evacuated since the end of July.

The United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan since 2001, when it invaded and overthrew the Taliban regime after the group protected Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

About 2,300 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the war, and thousands more have been wounded. More than 100,000 Afghans are estimated to have been killed or wounded since the conflict began.

Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, Rhea Mogul from Hong Kong, Abigail Williams in Washington DC and David K. Li in New York.

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