Evacuation flights resume a day after chaotic scenes shut down Kabul airport

French and Afghan nationals wait to board a French military transport plane at Kabul airport on August 17, 2021.
French and Afghan nationals wait to board a French military transport plane at Kabul airport on August 17, 2021. © STR/AFP

Military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted early Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands of people desperate to flee after the Taliban seized the capital. 

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The number of civilians at the airport had thinned out, according to a Western security official at the facility, a day after chaotic scenes at the Hamid Karzai International Airport left at least five people dead as US police fired gunshots to disperse crowds of people desperate to flee the Taliban takeover.

The body of an Afghan was found in the landing gear of a US C-17 transport aircraft hours after it hastily took off on Monday with desperate people still clinging to the aircraft, according to US media reports

A US official told Reuters that two gunmen who had appeared to have fired into the crowd were killed by US troops.

The situation at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, the main exit point from Afghanistan, was stabilising on Tuesday, said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

"The position at the airport is stabilising," Raab told Sky News. "The stability at the airport is absolutely key," he added.

Order was restored at the airport and evacuation flights resumed by Tuesday, according to security officials.

"Many people who were here yesterday have gone home," said a security official. However, witnesses said they could still hear occasional shots coming from the direction of the airport, while streets elsewhere in Kabul appeared calm.

The first French military plane carrying French evacuees from Afghanistan landed overnight in Abu Dhabi, Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Tuesday, adding that France was working on running further flights out of Afghanistan.

US forces took charge of the airport as the Taliban held control of all ground routes after the insurgents streamed triumphantly into Kabul on Sunday, capturing the capital without a fight. 

The United States will seek to evacuate as many US citizens and Afghan interpreters as possible in coming weeks, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday.

“We remain committed to completing this drawdown in a safe and orderly way, and to doing what we can to getting as many of our American citizens out as well as many of those interpreters and translators” who assisted US forces, Kirby told MSNBC in an interview.

“We’re going to work really hard in the coming weeks to get as many of them out of the country as we can.” 

However, Taliban checks at the airport are making it more difficult to evacuate Afghans who worked for Western forces, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Tuesday as international forces scrambled to get people out of the country.

"The situation is much more dangerous (for Afghans) because there is no promise of being let through at the Taliban checkpoints," Maas said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers, adding that German and US forces were working to grant them safe access to the airport.

Escape from Kabul 

Against the scenes of panic and confusion in Kabul following the Taliban takeover, US President Joe Biden on Monday defended his decision to withdraw US forces.

Biden blamed the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan on Afghan political leaders who fled the country and the unwillingness of the US-trained Afghan army to fight the militant group.

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said. 

Video on Monday of hundreds of desperate Afghans trying to clamber onto a US military plane as it was about to take-off could haunt the United States, just as a photograph in 1975 of people scrambling to get on a helicopter on the roof of the US embassy in Saigon became emblematic of the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.

The swift Taliban takeover had news organisations simultaneously trying to cover the story, protect their journalists and help local Afghans who have worked for them over the past two decades. Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan sent an urgent request for help to the Biden administration on behalf of more than 200 journalists, support staff and families of people who worked for the Post, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. For safety reasons, they wanted to be transported from the civilian to the military side of the Kabul airport.

NGO workers were also scrambling to get out of Afghanistan. A French-Afghan national who works for a Paris-based NGO, and asked to remain anonymous, is among those trying to get home. He was visiting his father in Kabul and had a ticket out of Afghanistan for Monday afternoon. But when he arrived at the airport, he found his flight was cancelled and the Taliban wouldn’t let him through. He was beaten by the Taliban and is now desperate to get out on one of the next French planes.

“If I stay here for long,” he told FRANCE 24 by phone, “it will be very difficult and dangerous for me to get out”.

Macron says France will not abandon Afghans

French President Emmanuel Macron promised in a speech on Monday that France would not abandon Afghans who worked for his country – from translators to kitchen staff, as well as artists, activists and others under threat from the Taliban. 

Macron said that protecting those who helped France over the years is an “absolute urgency” and said two military transport planes, with special forces on board, were bound for Kabul. 

The French president also vowed that the fight against “Islamic terrorism in all its forms” would not end. 

“Afghanistan cannot again become the sanctuary for terrorism that it was,” Macron said. “We will do everything so that Russia, the United States and Europe can cooperate efficiently because our interests are the same,” he said. Macron also said France – along with Germany and other European countries — would work swiftly on developing a “robust response” to another major concern for many countries, a flux of irregular migration by Afghans. 

Europe urges unity on Taliban, migration

European leaders on Monday said they will press for a unified international approach to dealing with a Taliban government in Afghanistan, as they looked on with dismay at the rapid collapse of two decades of a US-led Western campaign in the country.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Macron, stressing the need for a common stand, both on recognising any future Afghan government and to prevent a humanitarian and refugee crisis. 

Both leaders agreed to cooperate at the UN Security Council, and Johnson also said he will host a virtual meeting of G7 leaders on Afghanistan in the next few days. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman echoed that sentiment Monday, saying the question of whether there can be a dialogue with the Taliban needs to be discussed internationally. 

“We do not have any illusions about the Taliban and the essence of their movement,” said Steffen Seibert, the spokesman.

Macron also raised fears of uncontrolled migration to Europe by Afghans, saying that France, Germany and other European countries would work to swiftly develop a “robust, coordinated and united response.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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