Panicked screams mixed with the sound of gunfire at Kabul airport today amid fresh chaos as thousands of Afghans desperate to escape Taliban rule pleaded with troops to be allowed on the only planes out of the country.
Women were filmed reaching their hands through iron railings towards US troops while screaming ‘the Taliban are coming’ in footage being circulated on Afghan social media accounts this morning.
Meanwhile more footage captured gunshots ringing out among crowds at the airport’s north gate overnight and this morning as men, women, and children huddled nearby, barely flinching as bullets were fired into the sky.
Taliban gunmen have now surrounded the airport – the only route out of Afghanistan for thousands of refugees stranded in the capital and nearby provinces – and are checking the documents of those trying to reach it.
That means that Afghan translators and others holding visas that would allow them on the evacuation flights are in hiding close to the airport, afraid to break cover and try to reach the runway in case the Taliban hauls them away.
In a sign of how dire the situation has become, White House spokesman Jen Psaki was forced to admit on Tuesday that there is no guarantee that all US citizens and visa holders will be able to leave the country before troops pull out on August 31.
‘Our focus right now is on the task at hand, and that is day by day getting as many American citizens, SIV applicants, as many of the vulnerable population who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes,’ she said.
Flights that were supposed to be carrying thousands of people out of the country each day have so-far been taking off with just a few hundred aboard, with the UK evacuating some 370 people between Sunday and Monday.
General Sir Nick Carter, head of the UK armed forces, told BBC Radio 4 that Britain ‘hopes’ to get 1,000 people out today with seven evacuation flights going into the country – though was forced to admit that is only possible due to ‘collaboration’ with the Taliban.
He also flatly denied reports that people are struggling to get to the airport, saying: ‘Subject to the situation remaining calm, which the Taliban are working hard to achieve alongside us, the system will work.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce today that the UK will take 25,000 Afghan refugees over five years including 5,000 this year – though it is unclear how exactly those people will get out of the country.
Such an operation would take months to complete at the current rate, even assuming all those who want to leave can reach the airport, and it is unclear how long the Taliban will allow the current airport amnesty to last.
Meanwhile the US has said it may issue up to 80,000 special immigrant visas to provide a route out of the country for its Afghan allies,
Tempers were already fraying around the airport on Tuesday as gunmen opened fire into crowds, with harrowing images showing a young child with a bloodied head being carried by a man while a woman lay wounded in the road behind them.
The US army’s General Frank McKenzie is leading 6,000 US troops and 900 British soldiers who are trying to evacuate as many as 50,000 Afghan refugees and thousands of other foreign citizens, including aid workers and diplomats, who live in Kabul.
For the moment, the Taliban say they are giving ‘amnesty’ to foreigners who wish to leave. But amid tense scenes at the capital, which fell to insurgents with astonishing rapidity, fears are growing that the tentative calm could fall apart at any moment.
Vice Admiral Sir Ben Key, who is running the British evacuation operation, told the BBC the UK will be bringing back as many people as it can, as quickly as possible, until either demand is met or ‘the security situation means that we’re no longer operating with consent’.
US troops, backed by British SAS and Royal Marines special forces, are guarding the 7.8-mile perimeter with snipers on rooftops, as well as machine gunners and armored cars on the runway. Meanwhile, truck-loads of Taliban fighters are outside the airport and manning the gates into the airport armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers.
But eligible individuals have to make the trip to the airport themselves when called to do so, and the Taliban now control the access points, he added.
Sir Ben said that his forces face a race against time, and they are ‘alive to the uncertainty’ of the situation.
The White House today confirmed that the Taliban had promised that civilians could travel safely to the Kabul airport, but reports of insurgents beating and shooting Afghans trying to enter could rattle the uneasy deal between the country’s new rulers and their Western adversaries.
Gen. McKenzie, whose forces now operate in a country almost completely dominated by the Taliban, has warned that his troops will respond forcefully to defend the airport if necessary, as US troops, backed by British SAS and Royal Marines special forces, guard the perimeter with snipers on rooftops, and machine gunners and armored cars guard the runway.
Truck-loads of Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers now wait outside the airport and man the gates into it, as their blood-soaked organisation returns to power following a 20-year conflict with a global superpower that had sought to destroy them.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 12 flights had taken off, many heading to nearby cities like Doha, while others have landed at RAF bases in Cyprus.
But tens of thousands of desperate civilians who worked for the coalition are still stuck in Kabul and facing certain death unless they can be flown out of the country.
The Pentagon says it is aiming to have a flight out of Kabul every hour so that it can evacuate 9,000 people per day.