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Taliban Warns Against Delaying Troop Withdrawal As West Worries About Completing Evacuation

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A U.S. Marine assigned to 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit comforts an infant while they wait for its mother during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul at the weekend.

The Taliban has warned that it will not accept any extension to the August 31 withdrawal for international forces after the United States and other Western countries said the chaotic evacuation of thousands of people seeking to flee Afghanistan may require keeping troops on the ground past the deadline.

The stark warning from the militants on August 23 came after one Afghan guard was killed and three were wounded in a firefight at Kabul airport as the exodus of tens of thousands of people seeking to escape Taliban-run Afghanistan continues.

Two NATO officials at the airport said the situation was under control after the shooting death. The Taliban has deployed fighters outside the airport, where they say they have tried to help enforce some kind of order.

Twenty people have been killed in the chaos at the airport, mostly in shootings and stampedes, as U.S. and international forces try to move citizens and vulnerable Afghans out of the country following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that the United States was in talks with Taliban leaders "on a daily basis," and that Biden would take a "day-by-day" approach on whether to extend the August 31 deadline.

"Our focus is on getting this done by the end of the month," according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

He said that if commanders on the ground said an extension was needed it would be passed to the U.S. president, but he added: "We just aren't there right now."

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to press Biden at an emergency meeting of Group of Seven leaders on August 24 to extend the Kabul evacuations, while France's foreign minister said Paris agreed that more time was needed to complete the process.

Germany’s foreign minister said discussions had begun between his country, the United States, Turkey, and the Taliban with the aim of "facilitating a civil operation of Kabul airport to enable the evacuation of people beyond August 31."

However, Kirby said he was "not aware of specific conversations we’ve had in respect to the deadline."

Earlier, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News in an interview broadcast on August 23 that such a move would create "mistrust" and "provoke a reaction."

"It's a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that," Shaheen said.

"If the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations -- the answer is no. Or there would be consequences," he added. He did not elaborate on what the consequences may be.

With just over a week left before the Taliban says it will stop allowing foreign troops to facilitate the exodus, Biden and Johnson "discussed the ongoing efforts by our diplomatic and military personnel to evacuate their citizens, local staff, and other vulnerable Afghans," the White House said in a readout of their call on August 23.

"They also discussed plans for the G7 virtual leaders' meeting tomorrow (August 24), underscoring the importance of close coordination with allies and partners in managing the current situation and forging a common approach to Afghanistan policy," it added.

According to Johnson's office, Biden and the British prime minister "discussed the ongoing efforts by the U.K. and U.S. to coordinate the rapid and safe evacuation of our nationals and those who previously worked with our governments from Kabul International Airport."

The two leaders "also agreed to continue working together to ensure those who are eligible to leave are able to, including after the initial phase of the evacuation has ended."

Johnson and Biden noted the importance of concerted diplomatic engagement to secure the progress made in Afghanistan and to prevent a humanitarian crisis, the office said in a statement.

The Pentagon said on August 23 that around 16,000 people had been evacuated through the Kabul airport over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of people relocated from Afghanistan to 37,000 since the intense airlift operations started on August 14.

A U.S. military spokesman said the firefight outside the north gate of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport appeared to have begun "when an unknown hostile actor fired upon Afghan security forces."

"The Afghans returned fire, and in keeping with their right of self-defense, so too did U.S. and coalition troops," Captain William Urban said in a statement.

"One member of the Afghan forces was killed by the hostile actor; several Afghans were wounded during the exchange," he added.

The United States has voiced concerns about a possible threat from Islamic State militants in Afghanistan known as ISIS-K, a foe of the Taliban, around the airport. White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan called the threat "real and acute" in remarks to CNN.

The U.S. military has been in constant contact with the Taliban to facilitate the evacuations. Biden has said the group has been "cooperative in extending some of the perimeter" around the airport as thousands gather in the area.

WATCH: There were chaotic scenes at the evacuation center outside Kabul airport on August 21 as footage from British broadcaster Sky News showed soldiers covering the bodies of people crushed trying to flee the country.

Deadly Stampede At Kabul Airport As People Try To Flee
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Thousands of U.S., British, and allied troops have secured Kabul's airport, and struggled to keep crowds at bay and away from tarmacs as military and civilian aircraft take off carrying foreigners and Afghans.

British, Belgian Armies Evacuate Afghan Co-Workers
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The situation inside the country remains perilous as well.

A top World Health Organization official said the agency only has "a few days left of supplies" for Afghanistan and wants help to ferry in 10 or 12 planeloads of equipment and medicine for its beleaguered people.

Rick Brennan, who heads WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, which includes Afghanistan, said the UN health agency was negotiating with the United States and other countries to help efforts to replenish strained stockpiles.

"We need a consistent humanitarian air bridge into the country ASAP," he said, to bring in emergency kits and essential medicines for treatment of chronic diseases.

Growing security threats have prompted U.S. military planes to do rapid, diving, combat landings at the Kabul airport and other aircraft have been seen shooting flares on takeoff, apparently in an attempt to confuse possible heat-seeking missiles.

Taliban leaders have reportedly begun talks on forming a government as Kabul residents complained that the public and telecom services are still being disrupted and banks remained closed more than a week after the militants seized the capital.

"We have no money. Banks are closed. There is no money. There are no credit cards,” a resident who didn’t give her name, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi over the phone.

“Mobile phones do not work properly. The Internet does not work. Poor teachers have not received their salaries. All government employees are unpaid. It is not known when the banks will open. Everyone is worried," she said.

With the Taliban trying to consolidate its control over Kabul and establish law and order, Farzana Kochai, a member of the Afghan parliament who has not fled Kabul, told Radio Azadi that she was "worried" about her safety and that of other women and youths.

"I hope that they can be safe and will not be harmed physically and mentally because of their past and current thoughts and opinions," she said.

In an apparent attempt to push back against their reputation earned during their 1996 to 2001 rule when the militants placed heavy restrictions on organized sports, the group posted a photo on its Arabic-language Twitter account showing political leaders meeting with the captain of the Afghan national cricket team, Hashmatullah Shahidi.

Participants in the meeting spoke about "future programs and ways to improve the performance and standard of the team," the tweet said.

The Taliban faced a new challenge in the northern Panjshir Valley, north of the capital, from fighters who refuse to recognize the Taliban’s claim to power.

Remnants of government troops and special forces have reportedly gathered in the Panjshir Valley -- long known as an anti-Taliban stronghold -- and joined local militiamen in forming a National Resistance Front.

The Taliban said its fighters had retaken three districts in northern Baghlan Province that neighbor Panjshir Province -- Banu, Pol-e Hesar, and Deh Salah.

But local sources told Radio Azadi on August 23 that clashes were going on in two of those districts between popular uprising forces and the Taliban.

Local forces recently claimed that three districts were "freed from Taliban control."

Amid European concerns that the situation in Afghanistan may create a new influx of migrants into the continent, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on the European Union to "support the countries close to Afghanistan in order to make sure that we won't have additional flows in Europe."

Mitsotakis told European Parliament Vice President Roberta Metsola that Greece has managed to stop mass migration in the past and will do so "with the same policy" this time.

Meanwhile, Spain said it had agreed to temporarily host 4,000 Afghans who worked for the United States at two bases used by the U.S. military in the south of the country.

The agreement allows the Afghans to stay in Spain for up to two weeks, Defense Minister Margarita Robles said.

U.S. officials have said they were setting up eight “transit hubs” across six countries that will have the combined capacity to process approximately 15,000 people.

This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.

With reporting by Reuters, Sky News, The Wall Street Journal, dpa, AP, and AFP
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