The Taliban are guarding the airport as most NATO troops leave Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Taliban forces closed Kabul airport on Saturday for most Afghans in hopes of evacuation as the United States and its allies were closing a chaotic air bridge that would end their troops’ two decades in Afghanistan.

Western leaders acknowledged that their withdrawal would mean leaving some of their citizens and many locals who helped them over the years, and they promised to try to continue working with the Taliban to allow local allies to leave the country after President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline to withdraw from the country. Country.

Although most of its allies had completed their evacuation flights, the United States planned to hold its flights around the clock until the deadline, saying that 113,500 people had been evacuated since August 14, the day before the Taliban claimed Kabul. Biden warned Saturday that commanders had told him that another attack was “most likely within the next 24-36 hours,” and the U.S. embassy issued a new warning early Sunday to all Americans to avoid the airport area altogether.

United Kingdom ended its evacuation flights on Saturday, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “switch skies and land” to get more of those at risk from the Taliban to Britain in other ways.

Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, said in a video from Kabul airport and posted on Twitter that it was “time to close this phase of the operation now.”

“But we have not forgotten the people who are still going away,” he said. “We will continue to do everything we can to help them. Nor have we forgotten Afghanistan’s brave, decent people. They deserve to live in peace and security.”

Like the stream of planes leaving Kabul slowed down, others arrived at locations around the world with Afghans who managed to secure seats on the last evacuation flights, including in the Washington area, Philadelphia, Madrid and Birmingham, England. Some passengers were relieved and looking forward to starting a new life far from the Taliban, but others were bitter about having to flee.

In Spain Shabeer Ahmadi, a journalist targeted by the Taliban, said the United States had condemned the work he and others had put into making Afghanistan a better place by letting the rebel group regain power.

“They left the new generation of Afghanistan,” Ahmadi said.

An evacuation plane to Britain landed with an extra passenger after cabin crew delivered a baby girl in the air, Turkish media reported. Her parents called her Havva or Eva, and she was at least the fourth baby known to have been born to Afghan mothers who went into labor on evacuation flights.

Meanwhile, families of Afghans killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing at an airport by an Islamic State group continued to bury their dead – at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. officials killed. Among them was Belal Azfali, a 36-year-old contractor for a U.S.-funded project who had been taken to the airport on his own without his wife. His remains were so disfigured that he could only be identified when someone took the family’s repeated calls to the cell phone he had with him, relatives said.

The United States on Saturday announced the names of the 13 Marines, Navy and Army personnel who was killed in the bombing. One of the Marines – recently promoted Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23 – was seen in a very widespread photo where she was petting an Afghan infant who was temporarily rescued from the crushed crowds outside the airport gates this month.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed on Saturday that the group’s forces had some positions at the airport and were ready to peacefully take control of it while US forces flew out. But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby denied the allegations.

The Taliban deployed extra forces outside the airport to prevent large crowds from gathering in the wake of Thursday’s bombing. New layers of checkpoints shot up on roads leading to the airport, some manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with Humvees and night-vision goggles captured by Afghan security forces. Areas where crowds had gathered over the past two weeks in hopes of fleeing the country were largely empty.

Officials said U.S. forces took all precautions at the airport as there was concern that IS, which is far more radical than the Taliban, could strike again. A new security warning from the US Embassy on Sunday morning said due to a “specific, credible threat” that all US citizens should avoid certain gates at the airport and avoid traveling to the area.

In his statement earlier, Biden said a drone attack he ordered that killed what military officials described as two “high-profile” IS militants believed to have been involved in planning or facilitating attacks would not be his “last” response. on Thursday’s suicide attack.

An Afghan who worked as a translator for the U.S. military said he was with a group of people with permission to leave who were trying to reach the airport late Friday. After passing three checkpoints, they were stopped at a fourth. An altercation ensued, and the Taliban said they had been asked by the Americans to let only U.S. passport holders through.

“I’m so hopeless about my future,” the man later told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “If the evacuation is over, what will happen to us?”

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday that Afghans who had worked with U.S. forces were still being locked up.

According to a State Department spokesman, 5,400 Americans and probably more have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14, including nearly 300 Americans in the last 24 hours. Another 350 were still seeking to leave the country, and they were the only ones the department could confirm were still in Afghanistan.

Biden has said he will meet a self-imposed Tuesday deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, and the Taliban has rejected any extension. They have called on Afghans to stay, promising amnesty even to those who fought against them, and have said that commercial flights would resume after the US withdrawal, but it is unclear whether the airlines will be willing to offer service.

As the deadline approached and the Taliban controlled almost the entire country, hundreds of protesters, including many officials, gathered outside a bank, while countless more lined up at ATMs. They said they had not been paid for three to six months and were unable to withdraw cash. ATMs worked, but withdrawals were limited to about $ 200 every 24 hours. Later Saturday, the central bank ordered commercial bank branches to open and allow customers to withdraw $ 200 a week, calling it a temporary measure.

The economic crisis that precedes the Taliban’s takeover may give Western nations leverage as they urge Afghanistan’s new rulers to form a moderate, inclusive government and allow people to leave after Tuesday.

Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, which covered about 75% of the overthrown Western-backed government’s budget. The Taliban have said they want good relations with the international community and have promised a more moderate form of Islamic rule than when they last ruled the country, but many Afghans are deeply skeptical.

The Taliban cannot access almost any of the central bank’s reserves of $ 9 billion, most of which are owned by the New York Federal Reserve. The International Monetary Fund has also suspended the transfer of about $ 450 million. Without a regular supply of US dollars, the local currency risks collapsing, which could cause the price of basic commodities to skyrocket.

The United States and its allies have said they will continue to provide humanitarian aid through the UN and other partners, but any broader commitment – including development aid – is likely to depend on whether the Taliban live up to their promises of more moderate rule.

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Faiez reported from Istanbul, Lawless reported from London and Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writers Frances D’Emilio in Rome, Joseph Krauss from Jerusalem, Robert Burns in Washington, Arritz Parra in Madrid and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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An earlier version of the story contained an incorrect figure for the total number of evacuations since August 14th.

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More of the AP’s Afghanistan coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/afghanistan

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