KABUL (Reuters) – A firefight involving Western forces erupted at Kabul airport on Monday when Afghan guards exchanged fire with unidentified gunmen, Germany’s military said, adding to the evacuation chaos as Washington faces pressure to extend its deadline to withdraw.
Thousands of Afghans and foreigners have thronged the airport for days, hoping to catch a flight out after Taliban fighters captured Kabul on Aug. 15 and as U.S.-led forces aim to complete their pullout by the end of the month.
Twenty people have been killed in the chaos at the airport, most in shootings and stampedes in the heat and dust, penned in by concrete blast walls, as U.S. and international forces try to evacuate their citizens and vulnerable Afghans. One person was killed in Monday’s clash, the German military said.
CNN said a sniper outside the airport fired at Afghan guards – some 600 former government soldiers are helping U.S. forces at the airport – near its north gate.
U.S. and German forces were involved in the clash, Germany’s military said. Three wounded Afghan guards were being treated at a field hospital in the airport, it said.
Two NATO officials at the airport said the situation was under control after the firing.
The Taliban have deployed fighters outside the airport, where they have tried to help enforce some kind of order.
On Sunday, Taliban fighters beat back crowds at the airport a day after seven Afghans were killed in a crush at the gates as the deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops approaches.
The Taliban seized power just over a week ago as the United States and its allies withdraw troops after a 20-year war launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as U.S. forces hunted al Qaeda leaders and sought to punish their Taliban hosts.
The administration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, struck a deal with the Taliban last year allowing the United Sates to withdraw its forces in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.
‘HOURS, NOT WEEKS’
President Joe Biden said on Sunday the security situation in Afghanistan was changing rapidly and remained dangerous.
“Let me be clear, the evacuation of thousands from Kabul is going to be hard and painful” and would have been “no matter when it began,” Biden said in a briefing at the White House.
“We have a long way to go and a lot could still go wrong.”
Biden said U.S. troops might stay beyond their Aug. 31 deadline to oversee the evacuation. But a Taliban leadership official said foreign forces had not sought an extension and it would not be granted if they had.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will urge Biden this week to extend the deadline. Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Britain was “down to hours now, not weeks” in its evacuation plan and forces on the ground needed to use every moment they had to get people out.
Johnson’s spokesperson said Britain still wanted to fly out thousands of people and had not set a hard deadline for when evacuations end.
“We will continue to run our evacuation process as long as the security situation allows… We need to be flexible in our approach,” the spokesperson said, adding that it would not be possible for British evacuations to continue once U.S. troops leave.
Panicked Afghans have clamored to board flights out of Kabul, fearing reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Sunni Muslim group enforced when it held power from 1996 to 2001.
The chaos at the airport is also disrupting shipments of aid going in to Afghanistan.
The World Health Organization said 500 tonnes of medical supplies due to be delivered this week were stuck because Kabul airport was closed to commercial flights, Richard Brennan, WHO regional emergency director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, told Reuters.
He said the WHO was calling for empty planes to divert to its storage hub in Dubai to collect the supplies on their way to pick up evacuees in Afghanistan.
Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government, while their forces focus on the last pockets of opposition.
Taliban fighters had re-taken three districts in the northern province of Baghlan which opposition forces briefly captured and had surrounded opposition forces in the Panjshir valley, an old stronghold of Taliban opponents northeast of Kabul.
“The enemy is under siege in Panjshir,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.
Anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Massoud said on Sunday he hoped to hold talks with the Taliban but his forces in Panjshir – remnants of army units, special forces and militiamen – were ready to fight.
Zabihullah also said the Taliban wanted to “solve the problem through talks.”
In general, peace has prevailed in recent days.
Reuters spoke to eight doctors in hospitals in several cities who said they had not heard of any violence or received any casualties from clashes since Thursday.
(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Rupam Jain, Caroline Copley, Michelle Nichols, Simon Lewis, Ju-min Park, Emma Farge; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)