Death toll rises from Kabul bombing as evacuation clock ticks down

Threats of more attacks push countries to revise evacuation timetables

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Evacuation operations in Afghanistan resumed on Friday, a day after a suicide bomber struck a crowd of US troops and Afghan nationals trying to enter Kabul's airport and secure a spot on the dwindling number of military flights.

Some US media outlets including The New York Times cited local health officials as saying up to 170 people, as well as 13 US troops, had died in Thursday's attack in which at least one gunman open fire on throngs of civilians after the devastating blast.

Concerns over further attacks have led several countries, including Denmark, Germany, the UK and Sweden, to announce they are cutting their evacuation schedules short. Sweden, Italy and Canada have ended their relocation efforts.

The US on Friday issued a warning that more attacks are expected before all troops leave by August 31. The Taliban will gain control of the airport on September 1.

If the toll from Thursday's assault is confirmed, it would mark one of the deadliest attacks since the start of the Afghanistan war 20 years ago.

A lorry bomb at the German embassy in 2017 killed 150, and a Taliban bomb on an ambulance in Kabul in 2018 killed more than 100 people.

In an emotional speech on Thursday, US President Joe Biden blamed the ISIS Afghanistan affiliate, considered far more radical than the Taliban militants who seized power less than two weeks ago in a lightning blitz across the country.

“We will rescue the Americans; we will get our Afghan allies out and our mission will go on,” Mr Biden said. But despite intense pressure to extend Tuesday’s deadline, he cited the threat of terrorist attacks as a reason to keep to his plan — something the Taliban are demanding as well.

As of Friday, the US said about 111,000 people had been moved out of Kabul since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this month.

But as many as 1,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans are struggling to leave in one of history’s largest airlift operations.

Gen Frank McKenzie, the US Central Command chief overseeing the evacuation, said about 5,000 people were still awaiting flights at the airfield on Thursday and it is clear many more will be left behind after the last US flight departs next Tuesday.

Many US allies on Friday announced they would cease evacuation efforts because of the growing danger of another attack. UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News on Friday that Britain's air operation would end within hours, saying there were only “eight or nine” flights left.

Sweden followed suit saying it had ended the relocation of its citizens from Kabul after flying more than 1,100 people out after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.

“The incredibly difficult and risky conditions meant we were not able to evacuate more Swedes and local employees,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said.

The Spanish government said it had ended its rescue flights, while French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune told Europe 1 radio that the country would end its operation soon but may seek to extend it beyond Friday night.

The German military ended the airlift from Kabul airport late on Thursday after flying 5,347 people, including more than 4,100 Afghans, to safety. The last flight out of Kabul landed in Frankfurt on Friday.

The government in Berlin said about 300 German citizens were still in Afghanistan. In addition, Berlin has identified 10,000 Afghans who are entitled to come to Germany, including former local staff, journalists and human rights activists, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had held its first talks with the Taliban. Mr Erdogan said the Taliban had asked Turkey to operate Kabul airport but, given the security threat, Ankara said no agreement had been made.

There are also growing worries that Afghans are facing a potential humanitarian emergency with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.

Medical supplies will run out within days in Afghanistan, the World Health Organisation said, and added that it hopes to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistan.

The UN said it is bracing for a possible exodus from Afghanistan of up to half a million more refugees by the end of the year and appealed to neighbouring countries to keep their borders open for those seeking safety.

“We are preparing for about 500,000 new refugees in the region. This is a worst-case scenario,” said Kelly Clements, the deputy high commissioner of the UN refugee agency.

Updated: August 27, 2021, 9:48 PM