Taliban fire in air to scatter hundreds of protesters in Kabul

(Reuters) – Taliban gunmen fired in the air on Tuesday to scatter protesters in the Afghan capital Kabul, witnesses said, as video showed scores scurrying to escape volleys of gunfire.

Hundreds of men and women shouting slogans such as “Long live the resistance” and “Death to Pakistan” marched in the streets to protest against the Taliban takeover. Neighboring Pakistan has deep ties with the Taliban and has been accused of assisting the Islamist group’s return to power – charges it denies.

“The Islamic government is shooting at our poor people,” one panic-stricken woman on the street says over sounds of gunfire in a video clip shown on Iranian television news. There were no immediate reports of injuries, however.

The Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan as U.S. forces pulled out last month triggered a scramble to leave by people fearing reprisals.

U.S.-led foreign forces evacuated about 124,000 foreigners and at-risk Afghans, but tens of thousands were left behind.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was in contact with about 100 Americans who were still in Afghanistan.

About 1,000 people, including Americans, have been stuck in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for days awaiting clearance for charter flights to leave, an organizer told Reuters, blaming the delay on the U.S. State Department.

Blinken, holding talks in Qatar, a key interlocutor with the Taliban, said the problem was one of documents.

“My understanding is that the Taliban have not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave,” he told reporters.

“Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go … We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft, or any hostage-like situation.”

AIRPORT RESTART

At the same news conference, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said no deal had yet been reached with the Taliban on how Qatar and its partner Turkey could get Kabul airport running again.

“We hope in the next few days we can get to a level where the airport is up and running for passengers and for humanitarian aid as well,” he said.

Turkey says it wants to provide security inside the airport to protect any Turkish staff and safeguard operations, but that the Taliban have insisted no foreign forces can be present.

On Monday, the Islamist militants claimed victory in the Panjshir valley, the last province holding out against it, and promised to name a government soon.

Pictures on social media showed Taliban members standing in front of the Panjshir governor’s compound after days of fighting with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), commanded by Panjshiri leader Ahmad Massoud.

Massoud denied that his force, consisting of remnants of the Afghan army as well as local militia fighters, was beaten.

“We are in Panjshir and our resistance will continue,” he tweeted. He said he was safe but did not say where.

The Taliban have repeatedly sought to reassure Afghans and foreign countries that they will not return to the brutality of their last reign two decades ago, marked by violent public punishments and the barring of women and girls from public life.

But more than three weeks after seizing Kabul, they have yet to set out their plans.

Asked whether Washington would recognize the Taliban, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday: “That’s a long way off.”

STUDENTS SEGREGATED

Teachers and students at universities in Afghanistan’s largest cities – Kabul, Kandahar and Herat – told Reuters that female students were being segregated in class with curtains, taught separately or limited to some campus areas.

“Putting up curtains is not acceptable,” Anjila, a 21-year-old female student at Kabul University, said by telephone, adding that women had sat apart from males in classrooms before the Taliban took over, but without barriers.

“I really felt terrible when I entered the class … We are gradually going back to 20 years ago.”

The conflict in Afghanistan, coupled with drought and coronavirus, has left 18 million people – almost half the population – in need of humanitarian aid, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.

It said tens of thousands of families had headed for relief camps in urban areas, but found they had neither food nor income.

“Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing and food and other lifesaving aid is about to run out,” Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news conference in Geneva, urging more aid ahead of an international donor conference on Sept. 13.

The World Health Organization is liaising with Qatar on deliveries of urgently needed medical supplies, WHO regional emergency director Rick Brennan said.

Drought and war have forced about 5.5 million Afghans to flee their homes, including more than 550,000 newly displaced in 2021, the International Organization for Migration says.

Western powers say they are prepared to send humanitarian aid, but that broader economic engagement depends on the shape and actions of the Taliban government.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Clarence Fernandez, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Qatar and Turkey working to restore Kabul passenger flights, ministers say

ANKARA (Reuters) – Qatar and Turkey are working to restore passenger flights at Kabul airport soon but have yet to agree with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers how to run the airport, their foreign ministers said on Tuesday.

Both countries have technical teams at the airport and Qatar is chartering near daily humanitarian flights following the withdrawal of U.S. troops a week ago, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

“We hope in the next few days we can get to a level where the airport is up and running for passengers and for humanitarian aid as well,” Sheikh Mohammed told a joint news conference in Doha with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

Damage to the airport’s runways, towers and terminals, needs to be repaired before civilian flights can resume, Turkey has said.

Because of the damage, pilots flying into and out of the airport are operating in “fly-as-you-see” mode, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.

He told Turkish broadcaster NTV that Turkey and Qatar were working to ensure that both humanitarian and commercial flights could operate. “For both of these, the most important criteria is security,” he said.

Turkey says it wants to provide security inside the airport to protect any Turkish team deployed there and safeguard operations, but that the Taliban have insisted there can be no foreign forces present.

Cavusoglu suggested the task could be given to a private security company. “In the future, if everything comes back on track in Afghanistan and the security concern is lifted, Afghan forces can do this.

“But right now, nobody is certain. There is no confidence.”

Cavusoglu said a “pre-delegation” of 19 Turkish technicians was working at Kabul airport with a Qatari team.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Doha, Aziz El YAakoubi and Lisa Barrington in Dubai Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Potter)

EU says Taliban must respect rights, guarantee security as conditions for help

By Sabine Siebold

BRDO, Slovenia (Reuters) -The European Union is ready to engage with the new Taliban government in Kabul but the Islamist group must respect human rights, including those of women, and not let Afghanistan become a base for terrorism, the EU foreign policy chief said on Friday.

“In order to support the Afghan population, we will have to engage with the new government in Afghanistan,” Josep Borrell said during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Slovenia.

He described an “operational engagement,” which would not by itself constitute the formal recognition of the Taliban government, and would “increase depending on the behavior of this government”.

Borrell said the new government must prevent the country from again becoming a breeding ground for militants as it was during the Taliban’s previous time in power. It must respect human rights, the rule of law and freedom of the media, and should negotiate with other political forces on a transitional government.

The Taliban have yet to name a government more than two weeks since they swept back into power. Their 1996-2001 rule was marked by violent punishments and a ban on schooling or work for women and girls, and many Afghans and foreign governments fear a return to such practices. The militants say they have changed but have yet to spell out the rules they will enforce.

Borrell said the new government in Kabul must also grant free access to humanitarian aid, respecting EU procedures and conditions for delivery.

“We will increase humanitarian aid, but we will judge them according to the access they provide,” Borrell said.

Aid agencies have said Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian catastrophe amid an economic crisis brought on by the conflict, a drought and the COVID-19 pandemic. About 18 million Afghans – roughly half the population – are already in need of humanitarian help, according to EU experts.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it depended on the Taliban how swiftly frozen development aid – which is different from the unconditional humanitarian aid – can flow again.

“We have heard many moderate remarks in the past days, but we will measure the Taliban by their actions, not by their words,” Maas told reporters in Slovenia.

“We want to help avert a looming humanitarian crisis in the coming winter, which is why we have to act fast.”

According to Borrell, the EU aims to coordinate its contacts with the Taliban through a joint EU presence in Kabul, should security conditions make it safe to do so.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff)

Majority of Afghan allies may have missed out on airlift – U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States may have left behind the majority of Afghans who helped in the 20-year war effort along with their families as U.S. citizens were prioritized in the airlift that came to an end this week, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.

The departure of the last U.S. military flights out of Kabul on Monday marked the end of an operation that saw more than 123,000 people brought out of Afghanistan in less than two weeks.

President Joe Biden has pledged to keep helping 100 to 200 U.S. citizens left in the country who wanted to leave and a much larger group of at-risk Afghans, including former interpreters for the U.S. military.

Asked how many potential applicants to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghan allies and their families remained in Kabul, a senior State Department official said they could not provide an estimate.

“But I would say it’s the majority of them just based on anecdotal information about the populations we were able to support,” the official said. About 2,000 SIV applicants were brought to the United States before the broader airlift began in mid-August.

Initial efforts to prioritize those Afghans for evacuation were marred by security concerns at the airport gates and difficulties in giving them credentials that could not be replicated, the official said.

U.S. officials had a legal obligation to help American citizens who were stuck in Kabul and prioritized their departure, the official said. About 5,500 U.S. citizens were on evacuation flights from Kabul after Aug. 14, according to the State Department.

“Everybody who lived it is haunted by the choices we had to make and by the people we were not able to help depart in this first phase of the operation,” the official said.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Arshad Mohammed and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

‘Everybody screwed up’: Blame game begins over turbulent U.S. exit from Afghanistan

By Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A week into the evacuation from Kabul, the U.S. military was forced to take a drastic step: stop all flights from Hamid Karzai International Airport for seven hours because there was nowhere for the evacuees to go.

For months, military officials had urged the U.S. State Department to convince other countries to take Afghans at risk from Taliban retaliation. They had largely failed to secure agreements with other countries, prompting officials across the U.S. government to rush to try to find space for the evacuees.

The Biden administration’s scramble was emblematic of failures over the past month, which culminated with a hastily organized airlift that left thousands of U.S.-allied Afghans behind and was punctuated by a suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans.

The chaotic end to America’s longest war has sparked the biggest crisis of President Joe Biden’s seven months in the White House, finger-pointing within the administration and questions about who, if anyone, would be held responsible.

Despite the missteps, the administration carried out one of the largest airlifts in history, evacuating more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and people of other nationalities amid the threat of attacks by Islamic State militants.

The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on Monday.

Current and former officials and lawmakers said there is little appetite for Biden to fire or demote top advisers over the handling of the U.S. withdrawal. The Democratic president, meanwhile, has strongly defended his administration’s actions.

Frustrated and angry, officials at the Pentagon have privately blamed the lack of urgency leading up to the airlift on the State and Homeland Security departments, who in turn have blamed the White House for slow decision-making.

“Finger-pointing is an ugly Washington sport … in this case, fingers could be pointed in all directions and probably be right in each case,” said Dan Fried, a former senior U.S. diplomat now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

“A failure like this is collective. Everybody screwed up,” Fried added.

A source familiar with the matter defended the evacuation planning and said the State Department was unaware of any concerns at the Department of Defense about a lack of urgency in the effort.

White House officials told Reuters that firings have not been discussed, but the administration expects Congress to aggressively investigate the turbulent exit from Afghanistan in hearings.

One Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any dismissal would be seen as a tacit admission that the president had erred in removing troops unconditionally from the South Asian nation.

Biden, in a defiant speech on Tuesday, defended his decision to withdraw the troops and stood by the evacuation plan.

“Some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and ‘Couldn’t this have be done – have been done in a more orderly manner?’ I respectfully disagree,” said Biden, who noted that he was ultimately responsible for the withdrawal.

POLITICAL DECISION

Biden’s party narrowly controls the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and aides in both chambers said that, while Democrats would investigate and expect to hold hearings, they are wary of giving Republicans a platform to attack the president.

Democratic congressional committee leaders have pledged thorough reviews of the events in Afghanistan, but they made clear they intend to look into the entire 20-year conflict, which unfolded under the watch of four presidents, starting with Republican President George W. Bush.

On Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration has provided many classified and unclassified briefings to lawmakers.

“Now, it’s a 20-year war, so there’s obviously a lot to dig into,” she said.

Democrats want to pursue Biden’s domestic agenda – expanding social programs, funding infrastructure and protecting voting rights. On the national security front, they want to highlight their investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

How Congress eventually proceeds will depend on the level of interest from voters.

Less than 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that the Biden administration would conduct a “hotwash” – an after-action review – to discover what went wrong in Afghanistan, and that he expected results of that review to be made public.

White House officials said on Tuesday the review had not begun.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

The last month in Afghanistan was a series of failures, from the intelligence and military to diplomatic and immigration fronts, with one core error the failure to anticipate the speed of the Taliban’s advance and collapse of the Afghan military.

“In some way, everyone is to blame,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Some Republicans have pointed fingers at Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the ones most responsible for setting the conditions for a chaotic evacuation, and have demanded their departure.

Republicans also have called for Biden to fire the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the Trump administration’s 2020 deal with the Taliban that set the stage for the withdrawal.

But when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked whether he thought Biden or Blinken should be impeached, the California Republican did not answer, saying instead his focus was on getting the Americans out of Afghanistan.

Defense officials told Reuters the State Department appeared out of touch with the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and had too much confidence in the Afghan government.

During a congressional hearing in June, Blinken was asked if the administration was considering getting at-risk Afghans out of the country while their cases were being reviewed.

“If there is a significant deterioration in security, that could well happen, we discussed this before, I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday,” Blinken said.

The Taliban seized two of Afghanistan’s three largest cities – Kandahar and Herat – on Friday, Aug. 13 and took Kabul, the capital, two days later.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk, Jarrett Renshaw. Editing by Mary Milliken, Phil Stewart and Paul Simao)

New era for Afghanistan starts with long queues, rising prices

By James Mackenzie

(Reuters) – As Kabul began a new era of Taliban rule, long queues outside banks and soaring prices in the bazaars underlined the everyday worries now facing its population after the spectacular seizure of the city two weeks ago.

For the Taliban, growing economic hardship is emerging as their biggest challenge, with a sinking currency and rising inflation adding misery to a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Even for the relatively well-off, with many offices and shops still shut and salaries unpaid for weeks the daily struggle to put food on the table has become an overwhelming preoccupation.

“Everything is expensive now, prices are going up every day,” said Kabul resident Zelgai, who said tomatoes which cost 50 afghani the day before were now selling for 80.

In an effort to get the economy moving again, banks which closed as soon as the Taliban took Kabul have been ordered to re-open. But strict weekly limits on cash withdrawals have been imposed and many people still faced hours of queuing to get at their cash.

Outside the city, humanitarian organizations have warned of impending catastrophe as severe drought has hit farmers and forced thousands of rural poor to seek shelter in the cities.

People huddling in tent shelters by roadsides and in parks are a common sight, residents said.

In a cash-based economy heavily dependent on imports for food and basic necessities and now deprived of billions of dollars in foreign aid, pressure on the currency has been relentless.

The afghani was recently valued at around 93-95 to the dollar in both Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad, compared with around 80 just before the fall of the city. But the rate is only an indicator, because normal money trading has dried up.

In the Pakistani city of Peshawar, close to the border, many money traders are refusing to handle the Afghan currency, which has become too volatile to value properly.

Only the sheer scarcity of cash has kept it from falling further, with international shipments of afghanis and dollars yet to resume.

“In the bazaar you can exchange for a bit over 90 but it goes up and down because it’s not official,” said one trader. “If they open the exchanges again it will go up over 100, I’m sure of it.”

STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS

The fall in the exchange rate has seen prices for many basic foodstuffs ratchet up daily, squeezing people who have seen their salaries disappear and their savings put out of reach by the closure of banks.

Kabul market traders said a 50 kg bag of flour was selling for 2,200 afghanis, around 30% above its price before the fall of the city, with similar rises for other essentials like cooking oil or rice. Prices for vegetables were up to 50% higher, while petrol prices were up by 75%.

Remittances from abroad have also been cut off by the closure of money transfer operators like Western Union, and increasing numbers of people have been trying to sell jewelry or household goods, even if they have to accept a fraction of their value.

“Two weeks ago, people were buying but the situation now is not good and no one is buying,” said one vendor. “People’s money is stuck in the banks and no one has money to buy anything.”

Taliban officials have said the problems will ease once a new government is in place to restore order to the market and have appealed to other countries to maintain economic relations. But the structural problems run deep.

Even when its economy was floating on a tide of foreign money, growth was not keeping pace with the rise in Afghanistan’s population.

Apart from illegal narcotics, the country has no significant exports to generate revenue, and aid, which accounted for more than 40% of economic output, has abruptly disappeared.

A new central bank chief has been appointed but bankers outside Afghanistan said it would be difficult to get the financial system running again without the specialists who joined the exodus out of Kabul.

“I don’t know how they will manage it because all the technical staff, including senior management, has left the country,” one banker said.

In a sign of the pressure on Afghanistan’s currency reserves, the Taliban have announced a ban on taking dollars and valuable artefacts out of the country and said anyone intercepted would have their goods confiscated.

Some $9 billion in foreign reserves is held outside the country and out of reach of the Taliban’s embryonic government, which has still not been officially appointed, let alone recognized internationally.

To add to the problems, a recent suicide attack by an Afghan offshoot of Islamic State on crowds waiting to get a place on evacuation flights brought a chilling reminder that the bombings that were a regular feature of life in the past may not be over.

“The market situation had slightly improved in the last few days,” said one vendor at a Kabul street market where people sell household goods to raise cash. “But it completely collapsed after the suicide attack near the airport.”

(James Mackenzie reported from Milan; Additional reporting by Islamabad bureau and Tom Arnold in London; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Rockets target US troops as core diplomats fly out of Kabul

(Reuters) -U.S. anti-missile defenses intercepted rockets fired at Kabul’s airport on Monday as the United States flew its core diplomats out of Afghanistan in the final hours of its chaotic withdrawal.

The last U.S. troops are due to pull out of Kabul by Tuesday, after they and their allies mounted the biggest air evacuation in history, which brought out 114,000 of their own citizens and Afghans who helped them over 20 years of war.

Two U.S. officials said the “core” diplomatic staff had withdrawn by Monday morning. They did not say whether this included top envoy Ross Wilson, expected to be among the last to leave before the final troops themselves.

A U.S. official said initial reports did not indicate any U.S. casualties from as many as five missiles fired on the airport. Islamic State – enemies of both the West and the Taliban – claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.

The rockets followed a massive Islamic State suicide bombing outside the teeming airport gates on Thursday, which killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.

In recent days Washington has warned of more attacks, while carrying out two air strikes. It said both hit Islamic State targets, including one on Sunday it said thwarted an attempted suicide bombing by blowing up a car packed with explosives in Kabul, but which Afghans said had struck civilians.

Tuesday’s deadline for troops to leave was set by President Joe Biden, fulfilling an agreement reached with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump to end Washington’s longest war.

But having failed to anticipate that the Taliban would so quickly conquer the country, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty evacuation. They will leave behind thousands of Afghans who helped Western countries and might have qualified for evacuation but did not make it out in time.

The Taliban, who carried out public executions and banned girls and women from school or work when last in power 20 years ago, have said they will safeguard rights and not pursue vendettas. They say once the Americans leave, the country will at last be at peace for the first time in more than 40 years.

But countless Afghans, especially in the cities, fear for their futures. And the United Nations said the entire country now faces a dire humanitarian crisis, cut off from foreign aid amid a drought, mass displacement and COVID-19.

“The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy,” said UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi.

“But when the airlift and the media frenzy are over, the overwhelming majority of Afghans, some 39 million, will remain inside Afghanistan. They need us – governments, humanitarians, ordinary citizens – to stay with them and stay the course.”

A Pakistani plane flew 12.5 tonnes of World Health Organization medical emergency and trauma kits on Monday to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the WHO’s first supplies to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system is at risk of collapse, two aid agencies told Reuters, after foreign donors including the World Bank and European Union stopped providing aid following the Taliban’s victory.

Outside the airport in Kabul, people described themselves as forsaken by the departing foreign troops.

“We are in danger,” said one woman. “They must show us a way to be saved. We must leave Afghanistan or they must provide a safe place for us.”

TERRIFIED

Afghan media said Monday’s rocket attack was launched from the back of a vehicle. The Pajhwok news agency said several rockets struck different parts of the Afghan capital.

“People are terrified and worried about the future, worried that the rocket launching might continue,” said Farogh Danish, a Kabul resident near the wreckage of the car from which the rockets were launched.

On Sunday, Pentagon officials said a U.S. drone strike killed an Islamic State suicide car bomber preparing to attack the airport. The Taliban condemned the strike and said seven people died. The New York Times quoted family members as saying it killed 10 people, including seven children, an aid worker for an American charity and a contractor with the U.S. military.

U.S. Central Command said it was investigating reports that civilians were killed.

“We know there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties,” it said.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters evacuations would continue on Monday, prioritizing people deemed at extreme risk. Other countries have also put in last-minute requests to bring out people in that category, the officials said.

Britain urged other countries to work together to provide safe passage out for eligible Afghans still in the country.

The Taliban will take full control of Kabul airport after the U.S. withdrawal on Tuesday, Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network cited an unidentified Taliban source as saying.

PRESIDENT MOURNS U.S. DEAD

Biden attended a ceremony on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to honor members of the U.S. military killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing, the deadliest incident for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in more than a decade.

As the flag-draped transfer caskets carrying the remains emerged from a military plane, the president, who has vowed to avenge the Islamic State attack, shut his eyes and tilted his head back.

Five of the fallen service members were just 20, as old as the war itself.

The departure of the last troops will end the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan that began in late 2001, after the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

U.S.-backed forces ousted a Taliban government that had provided safe haven for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and have engaged in a counter-insurgency war against the Islamist militants for the past two decades.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus and Idrees Ali and Rupam Jain; Writing by Clarence Fernandez and Peter Graff; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Angus MacSwan)

Blast heard in Kabul as U.S. forces destroy munitions -Taliban

(Reuters) – A large explosion was heard in Kabul late on Thursday as the U.S. military destroyed ammunition, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Thursday.

Two witnesses in an area some 3-4 kilometers from the airport said earlier they had heard a huge explosion, hours after an Islamic State suicide attack killed dozens of people trying to board evacuation flights.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Western troops in Kabul have to plan their own evacuation as deadline looms

(Reuters) – The United States and allies urged Afghans to leave Kabul airport on Thursday, citing the threat of an attack by Islamic State militants, as Western troops race to evacuate as many people as possible and get out themselves by Aug. 31.

The looming deadline has intensified pressure to complete the evacuations of tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban.

Shots were fired by unknown gunmen at an Italian military plane as it flew out of Kabul on Thursday, an Italian defense source said. It was undamaged.

An Italian journalist on the flight told Sky 24 TG that the plane had been carrying almost 100 Afghan civilians when it came under fire minutes after take-off.

Canadian forces halted their evacuations of around 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens on Thursday, saying they had stayed as long as they could. U.S. and allied troops also have to plan the logistics of their own withdrawal.

“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” acting chief of the defense staff General Wayne Eyre told reporters.

In an alert on Wednesday, the U.S. 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 another 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”.

“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 Netherlands said it expected to carry out its last evacuation flight on Thursday. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said this was the most dangerous phase of the evacuation process.

The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in Kabul, where the massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15, capping a lightning advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.

‘RISKING LIVES’

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.

Fighters claiming allegiance to ISIS-K first began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 but the ultra-radical Sunni movement soon expanded from the area near the border with Pakistan where it first appeared.

Daesh, as it is widely known in Afghanistan, established a reputation for extreme brutality as it fought the Taliban both for ideological reasons and for control of local smuggling and narcotics routes, according to Western intelligence services.

It also claimed a series of suicide attacks in cities like Kabul, where as well as government and civilian institutions, it particularly attacked targets associated with the Shi’ite religious minority.

In Kabul, 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 threats from Islamic State could not be ignored.

“Western forces, under no circumstances, want to be in a position to launch an offensive or a defensive attack against anyone,” the diplomat added.

The U.S. military has said it would shift its focus to evacuating its troops in the final two days before the deadline..

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, despite European allies saying they needed more time.

Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.

The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The Taliban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 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.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

Hundreds of displaced families seek food and shelter in Kabul

(Reuters) – Hundreds of Afghan families who have been camping in searing heat at a Kabul park after the Taliban overran their provinces begged for food and shelter on Thursday, the most visible face of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the war-torn country.

The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan this month, culminating in the capture of Kabul on Aug. 15, has thrown the country into turmoil.

While thousands of people have crowded the airport to try to flee, many others, like the families in the park, are stuck in limbo, unsure whether it is safer to try to go home or stay where they are.

“I’m in a bad situation,” said Zahida Bibi, a housewife, sitting under the blazing sun with her large family. “My head hurts. I feel very bad, there is nothing in my stomach.”

Ahmed Waseem, displaced from northern Afghanistan said those in the park were hoping the central government would pay attention. “We are in an open field and in the heat,” he said.

Afghanistan’s western-backed president and many other officials fled after government forces melted away in the face of the Taliban advance. The group has placed its members in ministries and ordered some officials back to work, but services are yet to resume, with banks still closed.

Phalwan Sameer, also from northern Afghanistan, said his family came to Kabul after the situation rapidly deteriorated in his home town.

“There (was) a lot of fighting and bombing as well. That’s why we came here. The houses were burned and we became homeless,” he said.

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it has only enough medical supplies in Afghanistan to last a week after deliveries were blocked by restrictions at Kabul airport and the U.N. World Food Program said the country urgently needed $200 million in food aid.

The United Nations says more than 18 million people – over half of Afghanistan’s population – require aid and half of all Afghan children under the age of five already suffer from acute malnutrition amid the second drought in four years.

The Taliban have assured the U.N. that it can pursue humanitarian work as foreign governments weigh the issue of whether and how to support the population under hardline Islamist rule.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa; editing by Philippa Fletcher)