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Evacuations Stall Amid Death And Chaos At Kabul Airport


Desperate Afghans cram into a plane at the airport in Kabul in a bid to flee the country on August 16. (file photo)

Chaos erupted at Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans swarmed the airfield in a desperate attempt to get a flight out of the country after Taliban militants seized control of the country ahead of the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces after a presence of nearly two decades.

Seven people were reported killed in the mayhem on August 16, forcing U.S. authorities to close down the airport temporarily to restore order and clear the airfield of people so that flights could resume.

The Pentagon said that U.S. troops killed two people after they were seen "menacingly" brandishing weapons at the airport.

Officials were not able to say how five others died, but video from the airport showed hundreds of people trying to force their way onto a moving aircraft, some clinging to landing gear as it attempted to take off. U.S. officials said troops fired warning shots into the air to try to disperse the crowds around the flight, which was taking American diplomats and embassy staff out of the country.

The government collapsed, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing abroad on August 15 as the Taliban captured Kabul -- the last major city in Afghanistan to hold out against an offensive that accelerated in the space of days as the militants rapidly gained control of territories across the country.

At an extraordinary meeting, the United Nations Security Council said in its first statement since the Taliban takeover that “institutional continuity and adherence to Afghanistan’s international obligations, as well as the safety and security of all Afghan and international citizens, must be ensured.”

The statement, drafted by Estonia and Norway, was approved by all 15 council members.

In sharp contrast to the situation at the airport, streets in the capital itself were mainly calm as Taliban soldiers patrolled the capital. The heavily fortified diplomatic "Green Zone" in Kabul appeared to be a ghost town with countries rushing to evacuate their embassies.

Dozens of governments called for calm to allow for the departure of hundreds of foreign nationals and Afghans seeking to leave the country after the militants toppled the Western-backed government over the weekend.

WATCH: Desperate Afghans Cling To U.S. Military Plane To Flee Taliban

Desperate Afghans Cling To U.S. Military Plane To Flee Taliban
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted the “breathtaking speed” with which the Taliban have taken over is especially bitter for the “millions of Afghans who supported a more liberal society and who counted on the support of the Western countries when it comes to democracy, education, women’s rights, and who also had achieved important progress.”

The Hamid Karzai Airport authority said it was forced to cancel all remaining commercial flights on August 16 "to prevent looting and plundering." The Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority announced that Kabul airspace had been released to the military and that it advised transit aircraft to reroute.

A number of major airlines said they had stopped using Afghanistan airspace in response to the directive.

WATCH: Journalist Sees 'Dark Future' As Taliban Fighters Go 'House-To-House' For Kabul Street Executions

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden was returning to Washington from the nearby Camp David presidential retreat to make a statement at 3:45 Washington time on the latest developments.

For months Biden had downplayed the prospect of the Taliban taking control following an announcement in April that the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by August 31. On August 14 he defended his decision, saying an "endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me."

He now faces rising criticism, especially from Republicans in Congress, after the insurgents' rapid offensive captured most of Afghanistan's major cities in less than a week.

"It is certainly the case that the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated," national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview on NBC's Today show on August 16.

"At the end of the day, despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan security forces, we could not give them the will and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country," he added.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taliban and all other parties to exercise "utmost restraint" in order to protect the lives of Afghans and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

"The world is following events in Afghanistan with a heavy heart and deep disquiet about what lies ahead," Guterres said, noting that the Taliban had so far respected the safety of UN personnel in the country.

The UN humanitarian office said members of the humanitarian community remain committed to helping the millions of Afghans needing assistance and are staying in the country despite the "highly complex" security environment.

More than 18.4 million people were already in need of assistance before more than 550,000 were displaced by conflict this year, according to the office, known as OCHA.

Many fear reprisals from the Taliban for their cooperation with government authorities or for working with foreign governments during the two decades the international coalition was present in Afghanistan. Those fears sparked desperate scenes at the airport as they sought a way out of the country.

Ireland's Ambassador to the UN chided the Security Council for failing to heed warnings over the situation in Afghanistan, saying "now we will have to address the consequences."

A member of the Taliban administration told Reuters that the group had started collecting weapons from civilians because people no longer need them for personal protection, as the Taliban sought to reassure the international community that Afghans should not fear them.

In a message posted to social media, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar called on the militants to remain disciplined, saying: "Now it's time to test and prove, now we have to show that we can serve our nation and ensure security and comfort of life."

Mohammad Naeem, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar, where the group has a political office, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that the militants were discussing the future of Afghanistan with a number of Afghan politicians.

Deputy national-security adviser Jon Finer said in an interview on MSNBC that the United States remained engaged in diplomatic conversations with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha.

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, AP, and AFP
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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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