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The US has carried out an air strike against a vehicle carrying “multiple suicide bombers” on their way to Kabul airport, as a gargantuan airlift was brought to a close with just 300 Americans and a handful of foreign and Afghan allies remaining in the airport.
Sunday's strike came as US forces were still evacuating thousands of nationals and allies from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The threat from the operation is believed to have been eliminated, US forces said. But the ongoing violence has been a grim bookend to a 20-year western presence in the country which drew to a close on Sunday.
Almost 115,000 Afghans and foreign nationals have been evacuated by the US and 20 allied nations.
US Navy Capt Bill Urban, a spokesman for the American military’s Central Command, called the drone strike an act of “self-defence”.
He said authorities continued “assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time”.
“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” Capt Urban said.
“Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the strike and the details on Sunday evening.
Kabul airport has been the scene of a massive evacuation operation with countries around the world sending troops to bring out nationals and allies who have supported US-led forces on the ground in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
The scramble to leave comes after the Taliban took control of much of the country in recent weeks and ahead of an August 31 deadline set by US President Joe Biden for American troops to leave the country.
The huge airlift operation has been complicated by the threat of attack, even as the Taliban aid international forces in security around the airport.
On Thursday, a suicide bombing killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 US military personnel – the largest American loss of life in the country in nearly a decade. Scores more people were wounded.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunday's US strike targeted suspected militants from the Afghan branch of ISIS – known as ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K. The militants claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack.
Sunday's strike came as rockets hit a home in Khwaja Bughra neighbourhood, near the airport, killing a child a Kabul police chief said. This appears to be an unconnected incident.
Eyewitnesses told The National that several rockets appear to have been fired towards the airport but none hit the facility. One projectile hit a residential home while the others landed in open ground.
The witness reported seeing several injured people being taken to the hospital.
Local media broadcast footage showing black smoke rising from buildings close to the airport.
The US had carried out a retaliatory drone strike on Saturday in eastern Nangarhar province, killing two ISIS-K leaders and wounding a third, in response to the suicide attack on Kabul airport.
But Mr Biden has continued to warn that more attacks are possible and urged civilians crowding around Kabul airport to leave the area and co-ordinate their extraction with officials.
Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden's national security adviser, said in a TV interview on Sunday that the Taliban had assured the White House that its Afghan allies and American nationals would still be able to leave after the Tuesday deadline for the US departure.
“The Taliban have both communicated privately and publicly that they will allow for safe passage,” Mr Sullivan told CBS's Face the Nation.
“After August 31, we will make sure there is safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident,” Mr Sullivan said.
“And yes, we will ensure the safe passage of those Afghans who helped us to continue coming out after August 31.”
Such safe passage would suggest some form of ongoing co-operation between Washington and the Taliban, which now controls a country it ran from 1996 to 2001, despite Mr Sullivan saying the plan was not to have a functioning embassy in Kabul beyond September 1.
Mr Sullivan said that two ISIS operatives killed in Saturday's retaliatory drone strike for Thursday’s attack had been were planning more devastation.
“These are individuals who are planning additional attacks,” Mr Sullivan said. “And we believe that by taking them out, we have disrupted those attacks to the individuals involved in the facilitation and planning and production of explosive devices.”
But, he warned that the strikes didn’t end the threat.
“We are in a period of serious danger given what we are seeing in the intelligence,” Mr Sullivan said
In recent years, the ISIS Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in those countries – massacring civilians at mosques, shrines, public squares and even hospitals.