Escape from Kabul: Diplomats flee US Embassy in Chinook helicopters as Taliban fighters close in

This is the moment US diplomats are seen being evacuated from Kabul as the Taliban closes in on the Afghan capital. 

In a scene mirroring that of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war, a US Air Force helicopter was seen taking off from the US Embassy earlier today.

The Chinook helicopter was seen taking to the skies above the city – just like in 1975 when a US Marine helicopter was seen evacuating embassy staff from Vietnamese capital. 

It comes as the US is stepping up its evacuation of Kabul as Taliban fighters move in ‘from all sides’. 

Shots have been heard on the outskirts of the capital today, much earlier than first anticipated.

US Intelligence officials had expected the city to hold out for three months, while UK ministers were hoping they had until the end of the month.

Leaders of the extremist group have today demanded the Afghan government surrender the city to them in a bid to avoid bloodshed – adding the chilling warning ‘we’ve not declared a ceasefire’. 

As many as 10,000 US citizens are being evacuated from the city. Around 3,000 US troops are being sent to aid the mission. 

Meanwhile, Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul.  

It is believed that by Saturday night that the number of UK officials still in Afghanistan had been reduced to the ‘low tens’ – including ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow.  

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie and his remaining embassy staff out by Sunday night – amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days.

Russia meanwhile today confirmed it did not intend to evacuate its embassy staff in Kabul. 

A twin-rotor US Air Force Chinook was seen taking off from the US Embassy earlier today, as the evacuation efforts rapidly pick up pace 

Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan

Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan

Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan

The Taliban is now closing in on the capital of Kabul from all sides, now controlling territories in the north, south, east and west

The Taliban is now closing in on the capital of Kabul from all sides, now controlling territories in the north, south, east and west

The Taliban is now closing in on the capital of Kabul from all sides, now controlling territories in the north, south, east and west

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow (pictured) and his embassy staff out by Sunday night - amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow (pictured) and his embassy staff out by Sunday night - amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow (pictured) and his embassy staff out by Sunday night – amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days 

As the Taliban advance continues, following the decision by the US to pull its troops out, gunfire was today heard near the presidential palace in Kabul.

The militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman hours after taking control of Jalalabad, the last major Afghan city to fall to the insurgents.

The terror group said in a statement they do not intend to take the capital ‘by force’ after entering the outskirts of the city.

An Afghan official earlier confirmed Jalalabad fell under Taliban control without a fight early Sunday morning when the governor surrendered, saying it was ‘the only way to save civilian lives.’

Its fall has also given the Taliban control of a road leading to the Pakistan city of Peshawar, one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan.

Jalalabad is close to the Pakistani border and just 80 miles from Kabul – the Afghanistan capital home to more than four million people and currently the only remaining major city still under government control.

Besides Kabul, just seven other provincial capitals out of the country’s 34 are yet to fall to the Taliban.

Concerns are mounting over how long Kabul can stave off the Taliban insurgents as they have captured the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, the second-largest city Kandahar and third-largest city Herat all within the last 48 hours.

The Taliban are now closing in on the capital from all sides, controlling territories to the North, South, East and West and advancing to just seven miles south of the city. 

A Taliban fighter sits inside an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on Sunday

A Taliban fighter sits inside an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on Sunday

A Taliban fighter sits inside an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on Sunday 

Taliban fighters drive the vehicle through the streets of Laghman province Sunday - the same day Jalalabad fell

Taliban fighters drive the vehicle through the streets of Laghman province Sunday - the same day Jalalabad fell

Taliban fighters drive the vehicle through the streets of Laghman province Sunday – the same day Jalalabad fell 

Residents and fighters swarm an Afghan National Army vehicle on a roadside in Laghman province as the insurgents take control of major cities

Residents and fighters swarm an Afghan National Army vehicle on a roadside in Laghman province as the insurgents take control of major cities

Residents and fighters swarm an Afghan National Army vehicle on a roadside in Laghman province as the insurgents take control of major cities

Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from Logar province, told The Associated Press that the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district on the outskirts of the capital, which was gripped by blackouts, communications outages and street fighting overnight Saturday as the country descends into chaos.

A US defense official has warned it could be only a matter of days before the insurgent fighters take control of Kabul. 

Today the Taliban said they aim to take the city, but say they have no plans to take Kabul ‘by force’.

Leaders of the extremist group say they don’t want a ‘single Afghan to be injured or killed’ during the hostile takeover – but warned ‘we’ve not signed a ceasefire yet’. 

Just last week, US intelligence estimates expected the city to be able to hold out for at least three months. 

A senior US official told the New York Times the Taliban have warned the US it must cease airstrikes or else its extremist fighters will move in on US buildings.

Joe Biden has vowed that any action that puts Americans at risk ‘will be met with a swift and strong US military response.’

SAS ordered to save Our Man in Kabul: Special Forces will get UK ambassador out by Sunday night amid fears Taliban will take Kabul airport in days 

ByGlen Owenand Mark Hookhamand Abul Taher for The Mail on Sunday

Dominic Raab last night ordered the dramatic rescue of the British ambassador in Kabul as Taliban forces closed in on the Afghan capital.

The Foreign Secretary sanctioned the SAS-led operation to airlift ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow and his embassy staff out by tomorrow night after he was warned that Kabul airport could be seized by the militants within days.

Sir Laurie took up his posting in June, and since the start of the Taliban offensive last month, he and most of his staff have been operating from the fortress-like Hamid Karzai international airport – three miles from the centre of the capital.

The Foreign Office has been shocked by the speed the Taliban has been able to move across Afghanistan

The Foreign Office has been shocked by the speed the Taliban has been able to move across Afghanistan

The Foreign Office has been shocked by the speed the Taliban has been able to move across Afghanistan 

The British Embassy, pictured, is under imminent threat from the Taliban who are only a few miles from Kabul

The British Embassy, pictured, is under imminent threat from the Taliban who are only a few miles from Kabul

The British Embassy, pictured, is under imminent threat from the Taliban who are only a few miles from Kabul 

The British government wants to stop a scene similar to that of the Fall of Saigon where Vietnamese evacuees were flown out on CIA funded Air America flights

The British government wants to stop a scene similar to that of the Fall of Saigon where Vietnamese evacuees were flown out on CIA funded Air America flights

The British government wants to stop a scene similar to that of the Fall of Saigon where Vietnamese evacuees were flown out on CIA funded Air America flights 

The Foreign Office has been surprised by the speed of the Taliban advance; until this weekend, diplomats were predicting the fighters would take two weeks to reach Kabul.

But by early yesterday, after a lightning offensive, the Taliban captured the city of Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province and just 43 miles from Kabul. The insurgents then continued their relentless advance, reaching the Char Asyab district just seven miles from the capital.

It means Kabul is well within range of the artillery guns seized by Taliban units after they were abandoned by the routed Afghan forces.

In a complex undertaking being directed from Britain’s Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul.

A further 7,000 interpreters, security staff, aid workers, intelligence agents and other personnel with links to Britain could also apply for safe passage out of the increasingly unstable country in an echo of the humiliating US exit from Saigon in Vietnam in 1975.

The Taliban have been rapidly advancing across Afghanistan and are within days of reaching the capital Kabul

The Taliban have been rapidly advancing across Afghanistan and are within days of reaching the capital Kabul

The Taliban have been rapidly advancing across Afghanistan and are within days of reaching the capital Kabul 

Officials have been surprised by the speed the Taliban have been able to cross the country

Officials have been surprised by the speed the Taliban have been able to cross the country

Officials have been surprised by the speed the Taliban have been able to cross the country 

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has ordered the SAS to rescue the ambassador and his team

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has ordered the SAS to rescue the ambassador and his team

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has ordered the SAS to rescue the ambassador and his team

A total collapse of the Afghan government could lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees leaving the country and seeking asylum in nations including Britain.

A ‘ring of steel’ of fortified checkpoints surround the airport in a bid to prevent car bombs, while The Mail on Sunday also understands that an air defence system called C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery and mortar) has been deployed to protect the runway from being shelled. The airport’s huge perimeter is defended by a force of about 500 Turkish troops. They are being reinforced by 3,000 American soldiers, including 500 Marines, who began arriving yesterday.

Meanwhile, US Reaper drones and heavily armed AC-130 Spectre gunships – a fearsome ground attack version of a transport aircraft – will carry out air strikes on any Taliban units approaching the airport, senior military sources say. The air cover will be co-ordinated from the Combined Air Operations Centre at Al Udeid air base in Qatar.

As panic gripped Kabul, foreign embassies began burning sensitive documents. The US embassy informed staff that ‘burn bins’ and an incinerator were available to destroy material including papers and electronic devices to ‘reduce the amount of sensitive material on the property’, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The speed of the Taliban advance has stunned the MoD. Only eight days ago, General Sir Nick Carter, head of the UK’s Armed Forces, wrote that there were ‘increasing indications that moderate Afghans are determined to fight and their armed forces are holding their own’.

The Taliban yesterday launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan defended by powerful former warlords. The insurgents also captured Sharana, the capital of Paktika province, which borders Pakistan. Pictures emerged online of the Taliban tarring men accused of theft and parading them around the streets of the newly captured city Herat, in western Afghanistan.

The images raised fears of a repetition of the human rights abuses committed by the fanatics in the 1990s. They included the beating of women for walking on the street without a male chaperone.

The SAS are believed to be preparing to evacuate the British ambassador and his staff from Kabul by tomorrow evening

The SAS are believed to be preparing to evacuate the British ambassador and his staff from Kabul by tomorrow evening

The SAS are believed to be preparing to evacuate the British ambassador and his staff from Kabul by tomorrow evening 

An Afghan police officer in Kabul mans a check point despite the approaching Taliban

An Afghan police officer in Kabul mans a check point despite the approaching Taliban

An Afghan police officer in Kabul mans a check point despite the approaching Taliban 

Terrorist fighters have been congregating in the city of Heret, west of Kabul

Terrorist fighters have been congregating in the city of Heret, west of Kabul

Terrorist fighters have been congregating in the city of Heret, west of Kabul

It remains unclear how many Afghan interpreters and others who helped the British will be rescued from the country. Canada has said it will take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees, including prominent women and government workers facing threats from the Taliban.

Johnny Mercer, a former Defence Minister who served three tours in Afghanistan before becoming an MP, said he was talking to former interpreters who were ‘petrified’ of Taliban reprisals.

‘Obviously the Taliban haven’t taken Kabul but their people are everywhere. They are starting to go door to door in Kabul. I dread to think what has happened to the ones in Lashkar Gah and Nad-e-Ali [areas of Helmand province that have already fallen to the Taliban]. We need to get a move on.’

Meanwhile, Lord Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, yesterday warned of a ‘tragedy in the making’ and urged the Government to consider launching a humanitarian aid operation to alleviate the refugee crisis in Kabul.

He said: ‘Let’s show the Afghan government we are not completely abandoning them and that we still stand side by side with them. It is quite possible to do that.’

Labour leader Keir Starmer also heaped pressure on Boris Johnson, declaring ‘we cannot just walk away’ from the war-torn country.

‘We have obligations to Afghanistan, we made promises to Afghanistan, and we cannot just walk away and let this turn into a humanitarian crisis, and probably a refugee crisis as well,’ he added.

‘There is a real risk now that international terrorism will take hold again in Afghanistan.’

Speculation is mounting that Afghanistan’s beleaguered President Ashraf Ghani could resign, heralding the collapse of the government. In a vague television address yesterday – his first public appearance in days – he said he was ‘holding consultations with local leaders and international partners’.

There were only seven commercial international flights out of Kabul yesterday. Those without tickets have been urged not to go to the airport, but that has not stopped them from turning up and desperately searching for flights.

Home Office staff are set to run a processing centre from a hangar at the airport which will check the passports and luggage of those due to be flown out, using biometric equipment to ensure that Taliban sympathisers do not try to infiltrate the evacuees.

 

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