Taliban block most of Kabul airport as foreign airlifts decrease

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Taliban forces on Saturday cordoned off Kabul airport to most Afghans in hopes of an evacuation, as the United States and its allies end a chaotic airlift that will end end to the two decades of their troops in Afghanistan.

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

Although most of their allies have completed their evacuation flights, the United States planned to maintain their flights around the clock until the deadline, saying 117,000 people have been evacuated since the Taliban claimed Kabul. August 15th. Biden warned on Saturday that commanders had told him another attack was “very likely in the next 24 to 36 hours.”

Britain was carrying out its last evacuation flights on Saturday, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson had vowed to “move heaven and earth” to smuggle more people at risk from the Taliban to Britain by other means.

British 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 have yet to leave,” he said. “We will continue to do all we can to help them. We have not forgotten the brave and honest people of Afghanistan either. They deserve to live in peace and security.

As the flow of planes leaving Kabul slowed, others arrived around the world carrying Afghans who managed to secure seats on the latest evacuation flights, including in the Washington area, Philadelphia, Madrid, Birmingham , England, among others. Some were relieved and eager to start their new lives away from the Taliban, but others were bitter at having to flee.

In Spain, evacuee Shabeer Ahmadi, a 29-year-old journalist targeted by the Taliban, said the United States had condemned the work he and others had done to make Afghanistan a better place by allowing the insurgent group to regain power.

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

An evacuation flight to Britain landed on Saturday with an additional passenger after cabin crew delivered a baby girl in the air, Turkish media reported. Parents called her Havva, or Eve, and she was at least the fourth known baby to be born to Afghan mothers who gave birth on evacuation flights.

Meanwhile, families of Afghans killed in the suicide bombing at the airport Thursday by an Islamic State-affiliated group continued to bury their dead – at least 169 Afghans and 13 US servicemen have died in the area. ‘attack. Among those killed was Belal Azfali, a 36-year-old entrepreneur for a US-funded project who had traveled to the airport alone, without his wife. His remains were so disfigured it could not be identified until someone picked up repeated calls from the family on the cell phone he had with him, relatives said.

The United States on Saturday released the names of the 13 Marines, Navy and Army soldiers who were killed in the bombing. They included at least one of the Marines – recently promoted Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23 – who was seen in widely circulated photos cuddling Afghan infants they had temporarily rescued from the crushing crowd outside the airport gates this month.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Saturday that the group’s forces were occupying positions inside the airport and were ready to take control peacefully as US forces took flight. But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby denied the claim.

The Taliban have deployed additional forces outside the airport to prevent large crowds from gathering in the wake of Thursday’s bombing. New layers of checkpoints have sprung up on the 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 US forces were taking all precautions at the airport because there were concerns that IS, which is much more radical than the Taliban, would strike again. In his statement saying another attack was very likely, Biden said a drone strike he ordered that killed what military officials described as two “high-level” ISIS militants suspected of having been involved in planning or facilitating attacks would not be his “last” response. to the suicide bombing on Thursday.

An Afghan who worked as a translator for the US military said he was with a group of people cleared to leave trying to reach the airport on Friday evening. After passing three checkpoints, they were stopped at a fourth. An argument ensued and the Taliban said the Americans had told them to only let US passport holders through.

“I am so desperate for my future,” the man later told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “If the evacuation is over, what will happen to us?

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Saturday that Afghans who had worked with US forces were still allowed in.

According to a State Department spokesperson, 5,400 Americans and possibly more have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14, including nearly 300 Americans on the last day. Another 350 were still trying to leave the country, and these are the only ones the department could confirm to be still in Afghanistan.

As Tuesday’s deadline draws near and the Taliban controls almost the entire country, hundreds of protesters, many of them officials, gathered outside a bank while countless others lined up at ATMs. They said that they had not been paid for three to six months and that they had not been able to withdraw any money. ATMs still worked, but withdrawals were limited to around $ 200 every 24 hours. Later on Saturday, the central bank ordered the opening of commercial bank branches and allows customers to withdraw $ 200 per week, calling it a temporary measure.

The economic crisis, which predates the Taliban takeover, could give Western countries leverage as they urge new Afghan leaders to form a moderate and inclusive government and allow people to leave after Tuesday.

Afghanistan relies heavily on international aid, which covered around 75% of the budget of the overthrown government backed by the West. 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 $ 9 billion reserves, most of which is held by the New York Federal Reserve. The International Monetary Fund has also suspended the transfer of some $ 450 million. Without a steady supply of US dollars, the local currency is at risk of collapsing, which could cause commodity prices to skyrocket.

Biden has said he will meet a self-imposed deadline on Tuesday for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, and the Taliban has rejected any extension of the date. He and the leaders of other NATO allies said they would try to work with the Taliban to allow their nationals and the Afghans who had worked with them to leave.

The Taliban urged the Afghans to stay, promising amnesty even to those who fought against them, and said commercial flights would resume after the US withdrawal, but it is not clear whether the airlines will be ready to offer services.

The United States and its allies have said they will continue to provide humanitarian assistance through the UN and other partners, but any broader engagement – including development assistance – will likely depend on whether the Taliban are keeping their promises of a more moderate regime.

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

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