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The US and UK warned their citizens to avoid Kabul airport because of security threats just hours after American secretary of state Antony Blinken urged the Taliban to ensure “safe passage” for people seeking to flee Afghanistan.
The deteriorating security situation at the airport has been a mounting concern for western officials trying to evacuate thousands of civilians ahead of an August 31 deadline to withdraw American troops. Officials have highlighted the danger of an attack from Isis-K, a terrorist group.
The alert issued by the US embassy in Kabul included a plea for Americans who were already at three of the airport’s gates to “leave immediately”.
The warning followed a similar message from the UK advising British nationals to avoid travelling to the airport and to “move away to a safe location” if they were nearby.
On Thursday James Heappey, UK armed forces minister, told BBC Radio 4: “There is now very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack and hence why the foreign office advice was changed last night.”
The directives from Washington and London were issued after Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, warned that the risk of a terrorist attack on the airport was increasing daily, describing the threat as “a real danger”.
Flight traffic at Kabul airport has been heavy with foreign military evacuations supplemented by private charter flights sent by international organisations, the Afghan diaspora, and other private citizens seeking to help employees, friends and relatives escape.
However, Stoltenberg said enabling people to get to the airport was a challenge, as the area around the facility and the rest of the country were “controlled by the Taliban”.
Turkey said on Wednesday that it would withdraw its troops from the airport, in a further sign of the worsening security situation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey would maintain a 500-strong battalion to secure the airport but the country’s military said it had begun evacuating its forces in light of the “current situation and conditions”.
The US and other foreign governments aim to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies by August 31. Stoltenberg said about 20,000 people were being airlifted out of the country per day.
The Taliban has insisted all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan by the end of the month in order to restore civilian commercial flight services from Kabul.
But the Taliban also wants to stem the exodus of Afghans and has blocked locals from reaching the airport. Many planes sent to evacuate at-risk Afghans, including private charters, have departed from Kabul nearly empty, according to people arranging the flights.
The Taliban has said Afghans with valid paperwork will be permitted to leave the country after August 31.
The Biden administration has come under heavy criticism from US allies and American lawmakers over the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, which they charged risked leaving many vulnerable people stuck in the country. Blinken has said 4,500 US citizens out of an estimated 6,000 had been evacuated this month.
“[The Taliban has] a responsibility to . . . provide safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave the country, not just for the duration of our evacuation and relocation mission, but for every day thereafter,” he said.
There was “no deadline” to help remaining US citizens and Afghans who had assisted American forces, Blinken added, and Washington was developing “detailed plans” for providing consular support and facilitating departures after August 31.
Many Afghans are seeking to escape over land, with thousands turning up every day at the two border crossings with Pakistan only to find the gates shut.
“Afghans seeking entry to Pakistan are required to have a visa,” a Pakistani official said. “Unlike the 1980s, when Pakistan opened its doors, movement is much restricted now.”
US officials admit that the fate of anyone left in Afghanistan Aug 31 would be in the Taliban’s hands.
John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said: “When the mission is over and we are leaving [Kabul] airport, the airport will not be the United States’ responsibility any more.
“How it gets managed going forward will be something the Taliban will have to manage on their own, I assume with the international community, but that won’t be an American responsibility.”
Blinken suggested that Washington’s relationship with the Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan would depend on the latter’s conduct.
“If a future government upholds the basic rights of the Afghan people, if it makes good on its commitments to ensure that Afghanistan cannot be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks . . . and in the first instance, if it makes good on its commitments to allow people who want to leave Afghanistan to leave — that’s a government we can work with,” Blinken said.
Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad