Desperate Afghans cling to evacuation hopes as clock ticks

With the clock running down on the chance to escape life under the newly returned Taliban, thousands of Afghans were still besieging Kabul airport Thursday, hoping against hope that they could slip onto one of the last flights out.

Not even the threat of a suicide bomb attack deterred the throngs gathered at a roundabout on the main airport road -- the chance of a new life abroad made the risk worthwhile.

Western nations warned their citizens Thursday to immediately leave the vicinity, with the US citing an "acute" terrorist threat from the regional chapter of the Islamic State group.

"I will wait until the airport is closed," said a man who identified himself only as Hamid, adding he was a manager in a state ministry until 11 days ago when the Taliban rolled into Kabul.

"They will give our jobs to their relatives. How will I support my family?" he said, accompanied by his wife, ageing father-in-law and two young children.

Hamid is not reassured by Taliban promises that he has nothing to fear under the new regime.

But he also admits he is not in any high risk category of Afghans for which the evacuation is intended -- particularly those who worked for foreign forces during the 20-year US-led occupation.

"I have heard that if I get into the airport then I can go to America," he told AFP.

"Can you take me to the gate? They will let you go through and you can take us with you."

People like Hamid and his family are partly responsible for the US-led evacuation being enveloped in chaos, but the speed of the Taliban's conquest of Afghanistan is an even bigger factor.

The US and other nations that had a military stake in Afghanistan planned for years to offer sanctuary to those who helped their troops -- some more generously than others.

But plans for a staggered and orderly relocation of what the Taliban dub "collaborators" and their families were thrown into disarray by the group's stunning return to power.

- 'Turn around' -

More than 95,0000 Afghans and foreigners have been evacuated since the hardline Islamist movement took control of the country on August 15.

With Biden insisting the airlift will end on August 31, the window of opportunity to leave has narrowed to a crack -- especially as the last few days will be taken up by evacuating those who oversaw the operation itself.

There are still, however, thousands of genuine at-risk Afghans in Kabul with visas and the promise of a flight out -- if only they can get to the airport.

WhatsApp message groups have proliferated with users pleading for advice on how best to get through.

Stories abound of Taliban fighters turning back those legitimately entitled to leave, but verifying them is difficult.

AFP can, however, attest to many cases of people who have made it out -- some even without travel documents -- usually in convoys organised by Taliban-friendly nations such as Qatar and often with an escort of fighters to guarantee safe passage.

But it is clear that patience is wearing thin for the Taliban, who have repeatedly said that extending the airlift is out of the question.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid appeared exasperated Tuesday at a news conference when pressed on the subject, insisting that anyone could leave "whenever they like" when commercial flights resume.

That wasn't enough to reassure Ali, who appealed for advice Thursday on a WhatsApp group on which airport gate to approach with a party of 20 "high risk" people desperate to leave.

"What is the best time to approach... we have someone inside," he asked.

"Turn around and drive to Pakistan," came a cold reply.

"You have more chance".


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