Islamic State threat emerges in Kabul

·3-min read

The US and allies are urging people to move away from Kabul airport, citing the threat of an attack by Islamic State militants as Western troops hurry to evacuate as many people as possible before an August 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 US and allied troops due to leave the airport next week.

In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the US 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 to move away from the airport area. Its armed forces minister, James Heappey, said intelligence about a possible suicide bomb attack by IS militants had become "much firmer".

"I can't stress the desperation of the situation enough. The threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal. We wouldn't be saying this if we weren't genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target that is just unimaginable," Heappey told BBC radio.

A Western diplomat in Kabul said areas outside the airport gates were "incredibly crowded" again despite the warnings.

Australia also issued a warning for people to stay away from the airport while Belgium ended its evacuation operations because of the danger of an attack.

The Dutch government also issued a warning and said it expected to carry out its last evacuation flight on Thursday, leaving behind some who are eligible to travel to the Netherlands.

The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in 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 August 15.

The Taliban, whose fighters are guarding the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of 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.

While Western troops in the airport worked to move the evacuation as fast as possible, thousands of people still thronged outside, trying to flee rather than stay in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, a civil aviation official at the airport, said people continued to crowd around the gates despite the attack warnings.

"People don't want to move, it's their determination to leave this country that they are not scared to even die," he told Reuters.

A NATO country diplomat said that although the Taliban were responsible for security outside the airport, threats from Islamic State could not be ignored.

President Joe Biden has ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.

In the 11 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the US 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.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume after the foreign troops go.

The militant group was overthrown two decades ago by US-led forces for hosting the al-Qaeda militants who masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson said on Thursday that Russia had yet to determine its position towards the Taliban and would see how they act toward the Afghan population and Russian diplomats.

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