A former Royal Marine who runs an animal charity in Afghanistan said on Thursday that he, his Afghan staff and dozens of dogs and cats were caught in the chaos after a suicide attack that killed at least 13 outside Kabul’s airport.
The Nowzad pet shelter operator, Paul "Pen" Farthing, was trying to fly out his workers and about 200 animals before the evacuations end.
The attack, involving two explosions and gunfire, hit near a gate where people gathered trying to get into the airport. At least 13 people were killed, and US officials said American troops were among the injured.
“We’re fine but everything is chaos here at the moment,” Mr Farthing told PA.
“All of a sudden we heard gunshots and our vehicle was targeted. Had our driver not turned around he would have been shot in the head by a man with an AK-47.”
Hours earlier, he appealed to the Taliban to allow the group safe passage into the airport.
“We have been here for 10 hours after being assured that we would have safe passage. Truly would like to go home now,” Mr Farthing tweeted to Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen.
His supporters have clashed online with British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who refused to fly out the animals on a Royal Air Force plane, saying: “I have to prioritise people at the moment over pets.”
Celebrities including comedian Ricky Gervais expressed support for Mr Farthing, and criticism of the British government, on social media.
The UK Defence Ministry later said it would help the group and the animals leave on a chartered jet funded by Mr Farthing’s supporters, if they could reach the airport.
Mr Wallace criticised “the bullying, falsehoods and threatening behaviour by some” towards defence personnel, saying it was “unacceptable and shameful.”
On Twitter, he urged Mr Farthing's backers to “please let my civil servants and military get on with dealing with one of the most dangerous and challenging evacuations for a generation".
Dominic Dyer, a British animal campaigner who is assisting Mr Farthing, said the chartered plane was due to leave the UK later on Thursday for Kabul.
Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said on Thursday that UK forces at the airport would “facilitate” the flight. He told ITV that “the difficulty is getting Pen into the airfield".
Before Thursday’s blasts, Britain had urged people to stay away from the airport, citing “very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack” by militants linked to ISIS.
The UK government says the RAF has flown out more than 12,000 people, including more than 7,000 Afghans, from Kabul in the past two weeks.
Mr Heappey told the BBC that Britain plans to run 11 more evacuation flights from the airport on Thursday but the “window of opportunity to evacuate people is closing” as the US prepares to end the operation by August 31.