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Thousands Still At Kabul Airport As West Races To Complete Withdrawal Before Deadline


A U.S. Marine provides security for evacuees boarding a U.S. Air Force plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 24.

More than 10,000 people seeking to leave Afghanistan remain at the Kabul airport and the figure could rise in the coming days, the Pentagon says, as the United States and its allies race to meet an August 31 deadline to finish the evacuations that President Joe Biden said are becoming more risky each day for U.S. troops still on the ground.

In 10 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have flown out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 in the last 24 hours, U.S. officials said on August 25.

But the U.S. military warned that even with planes departing the airport every 39 minutes, over 10,000 people remained at the facility awaiting departure.

"This is a snapshot in time," U.S. Army Major General Hank Taylor, joint staff deputy director for regional operations security, said, noting that more people could arrive at the airport at any time in a bid to leave the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that of the 6,000 U.S. citizens who were identified in Afghanistan, at least 4,500 of them and their families have been evacuated since mid-August, and that the State Department was "aggressively" reaching out to the remaining contacts.

He stressed that U.S. efforts to help people who wanted to leave Afghanistan would not end on August 31, and that the Taliban has made a commitment to allow U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans to do so after that date.

The evacuation process went into overdrive after the Afghan government collapsed on August 15 following a blitz offensive by the Taliban that saw most of the country's provinces fall to the militants in rapid succession.

Many Afghans are hoping to leave because they fear reprisals for working with international troops over the past two decades, while others dread a return to the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law that the hard-line Islamist group enforced when in power from 1996 to 2001, in particular the repression of women.

The Taliban has said that all foreign evacuations must be completed by August 31 and has asked Washington to stop urging highly skilled Afghans to leave the country.

Biden said on August 24 that the evacuation is on pace to finish by the deadline, but its timely completion “depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport for those who…we’re transporting out and no disruptions to our operations.”

Asked about reports that the Taliban fighters were blocking Afghans from getting to Kabul airport for evacuation flights, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on August 25: "Outside of that the Taliban have set up checkpoints and we are in daily communication with Taliban commanders about who we want to get in and what the credentials are, what they look like, and what's valid."

As the August 31 deadline approached, some U.S. allies announced they were ending the evacuation process, while European powers such as Britain and Germany sought to speed up the extraction of their citizens and Afghan nationals who worked for them, with Chancellor Angela Merkel pledging to try to help people out of Afghanistan even after the end-of-month deadline.

"The end of the air bridge in a few days must not mean the end of efforts to protect Afghan helpers and help those Afghans who have been left in a bigger emergency with the takeover of the Taliban," Merkel told the German parliament.

'More Than Scary': Harrowing Account Of Kabul Airport's Deadly Crush
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After The Guardian newspaper reported late on August 24 that Britain would halt the evacuations in "24 to 36 hours," U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sought to calm concerns, saying on August 25 that "the lion's share" of British citizens without dual nationality had been evacuated from Afghanistan.

Raab said that in the previous 24 hours some 2,000 people had been brought to Britain from Kabul.

A French government spokesperson said France will continue its evacuation operation in Kabul "as long as possible" ahead of the withdrawal date.

Deadly Stampede At Kabul Airport As People Try To Flee
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Russia on August 25 also announced that it was sending four military aircraft to evacuate some 500 Russian nationals as well as Belarusians, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Ukrainians from Afghanistan.

But NATO allies Poland and Hungary said on August 25 that they had ended the evacuations because of security concerns.

The Taliban has promised a general amnesty for anyone who worked with the U.S.-backed government. But there have been worrying reports of the militants hunting down journalists as well as former Afghan troops and government officials.

Amid chaotic scenes outside the airport, countries have started picking up their citizens from other locations and ferrying them to the waiting aircraft, while Afghans seeking to flee were left waiting outside the gates of the airfield.

Citing U.S. and other officials, The Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA and U.S. military were conducting clandestine helicopter operations to rescue Americans in and outside of Kabul.

Hundreds of former Afghan guards from the Australian Embassy and their families were left standing in sewage in a moat for hours outside Kabul airport yesterday, before being told they could not enter because they did not have visas in their passports.

With concern rising that the turmoil caused by the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan could turn the country once again into a breeding ground for terrorism, regional powers Russia and China discussed the potential threat in phone call between President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, the Kremlin said.

The two leaders agreed to step up efforts to combat the threats of "terrorism" and drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the Kremlin said in a readout of the call, adding that it was important to prevent instability from Afghanistan spilling into neighboring countries.

On August 24, the leaders of the G7 major industrialized nations -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States -- met virtually to discuss how to complete the withdrawal and how to deal with the Taliban.

The G7 leaders said they would remain committed to Afghanistan and back the United Nations in coordinating immediate humanitarian help.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the G7 agreed not only to a joint approach to dealing with the evacuation but also to a road map of how to engage with the Taliban.

The top condition of the G7 agreement was that militants must allow safe passage to Afghans wanting to leave the country even after August 31, Johnson said.

He noted that the G7 wields economic, diplomatic, and political leverage over the Taliban, including the ability to withhold substantial funds.

Biden said that the Taliban has been taking steps to work with the United States but added that it's a tenuous situation with a “serious risk of it breaking down as time goes on.”

Biden announced in April that he wanted the troops withdrawn before the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States by Al-Qaeda militants, whose leaders had found safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. He later moved the deadline forward to August 31.

Kirby said that, when the U.S. evacuation mission is over, troops will leave the airport, which will no longer be the responsibility of the United States.

"The Taliban will have to manage on their own and I assume with the international community," Kirby said.

Keeping Kabul airport open after the departure of foreign forces is vital for Afghanistan to stay connected to the world but also to maintain aid supplies and operations.

Reuters quoted two Turkish officials as saying that the Taliban have asked Ankara for technical help to run the facility, while stressing that Turkey’s military also withdraw fully by the end-August deadline.

The conditional request would complicate any prospective mission, one official said, adding: "Ensuring the safety of workers without the Turkish armed forces is a risky job."

The Turkish Defense Ministry later announced it had started pulling out troops serving at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai airport.

In Kabul, banks reopened for the first time since the Taliban takeover, but many people were said to have difficulty accessing their savings amid a rise in basic food prices.

The New Kabul Bank was issuing small sums of money to customers, while other banks said they were unable to allow withdrawals due to a lack of cash from Afghanistan's central bank, the BBC reported.

A local resident told RFE/RL that he did not have enough money to cover his family's daily expenses: "We have no money to support the family. No one lends and the situation is very difficult," he said.

Western Union, which allows people to receive money from abroad, has suspended its services, while the United States has frozen Afghan central bank reserves in U.S. accounts, depriving the Taliban of billions of dollars.

International financial institutions have also suspended their disbursements to Afghanistan.

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

With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP, and the BBC
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