The United States and allies urged people to move away from Kabul airport on Thursday due to the threat of a terror attack by Islamic State militants as Western troops hurry to evacuate as many people as possible before an Aug. 31 deadline.
Pressure to complete the evacuations of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban has intensified, with all U.S. and allied troops due to leave the airport next week.
In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the U.S. embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified “security threats”.
In a similar advisory, Britain told people in the airport area to “move away to a safe location”.
“There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack”, the British Foreign Office said in a statement.
Australia also urged its citizens and visa holders to leave the area, warning of a “very high threat of a terrorist attack” at the airport.
The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in the capital, Kabul, and its airport, where a massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been underway since the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15.
While Western troops in the airport worked feverishly to move the evacuation as fast as possible, Taliban fighters guarded the perimeter outside, thronged by thousands of people trying to flee rather than stay in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, an Afghan civil aviation official working at the airport, said people continued to crowd around the gates despite the attack warnings.
“It’s very easy for a suicide bomber to attack the corridors filled with people and warnings have been issued repeatedly,” he told Reuters.
“But people don’t want to move, it’s their determination to leave this country that they are not scared to even die, everyone is risking their lives.”
A NATO country diplomat in Kabul said that although the Taliban were responsible for security outside the airport, threats from Islamic State could not be ignored.
“Western forces, under no circumstances, want to be in a position to launch an offensive or a defensive attack against anyone,” the diplomat added. “Our mandate is to ensure evacuations end on Aug. 31.”
The Taliban are enemies with the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.
“Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another Western official said flight operations had slowed on Wednesday but the pace of evacuations would hasten on Thursday.
It was unclear how many eligible people hoping to travel were left but one Western official said an estimated 1,500 U.S. passport and visa holders were trying to get to the airport.
The White House said President Joe Biden was briefed on Wednesday about the threat from the ISIS-K group as well as contingency plans for the evacuation.
Biden has ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month, to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time to get people out.
In the 11 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 on Tuesday. The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.