Afghanistan evacuation: Fears of stampede or terror attack grow as air-lift nears its end

Wading through sewage and barbed wire while pleading with soldiers to put them on a plane – this is what the final hope looks like for thousands of Afghans stranded at Kabul airport today.  

With as little as 24 hours left before civilian mercy flights stop, desperate men, women and children made a last-ditch bid for freedom amid growing fears they could try to storm the airport and spark a fatal stampede, or that opportunistic terrorists could attack the densely-packed crowd. 

Those fears will only grow in the coming days as as civilian mercy flights stop and troops begin withdrawing en masse, with hundreds of American soldiers already thought to have left on flights that departed Tuesday. 

Lord David Richards, former chief of UK defence staff, said he is ‘pretty certain’ that British flights will have to stop on Friday at the latest to allow enough time for 1,000 troops to be pulled out of the country. France says it is ‘very probable’ that its own evacuation flights will stop a day earlier, on Thursday.

For Afghans not already at the airport, the chances of escape now appear slim after the Taliban said it will stop any more of its citizens going there and amid reports that even those with western passports are being turned away.  

It comes after Joe Biden, faced with Taliban threats, announced that he will be sticking to his August 31 deadline to withdraw all forces from the country – despite warnings from his allies that thousands of Afghans who were promised sanctuary will be left behind as a result.

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab admitted this morning that the mercy missions are now into their final hours with some 4,000 people – 1,250 western citizens and 2,500 Afghans – still left to rescue, though he did not say exactly when the final flight will leave.

Mr Raab was also forced to admit that the coming days will present ‘maximum danger’ for British troops, fearing both a ‘Saigon’ moment with crowds rushing planes and threats of a ‘spectacular’ terrorist attack.

Kabul airport

Kabul airport

Kabul airport

Kabul airport

Desperate Afghans waded through a sewage ditch on the outskirts of Kabul airport this morning while pleading with soldiers guarding the opposite bank to put them on a plane out of the country as time runs out to flee Taliban rule

Kabul airport

Kabul airport

Kabul airport

Kabul airport

A lucky man is hauled to safety by a soldier (left) and allowed one step closer to freedom, but most were left wallowing in filth as their pleas fell on deaf ears with as little as 24 hours left until civilian mercy flights top

Fears are growing that crowds could try to storm the airport once civilian mercy flights stop, or that opportunistic terrorists could attack the densely-packed crowd

Fears are growing that crowds could try to storm the airport once civilian mercy flights stop, or that opportunistic terrorists could attack the densely-packed crowd

Fears are growing that crowds could try to storm the airport once civilian mercy flights stop, or that opportunistic terrorists could attack the densely-packed crowd

Biden has committed the US to withdraw by August 31, a decision that western allies warn will mean thousands of Afghans who were promised sanctuary being left behind

Biden has committed the US to withdraw by August 31, a decision that western allies warn will mean thousands of Afghans who were promised sanctuary being left behind

Biden has committed the US to withdraw by August 31, a decision that western allies warn will mean thousands of Afghans who were promised sanctuary being left behind

The Taliban has said it will now block all Afghan citizens from reaching the airport, meaning that those who are not already outside the gates face little prospect of being able to escape

The Taliban has said it will now block all Afghan citizens from reaching the airport, meaning that those who are not already outside the gates face little prospect of being able to escape

The Taliban has said it will now block all Afghan citizens from reaching the airport, meaning that those who are not already outside the gates face little prospect of being able to escape

American troops and their allies have evacuated some 70,000 people from the airport since the Taliban took power on August 14, but the effort falls far short of the more-than 100,000 that western nations had promised to take

American troops and their allies have evacuated some 70,000 people from the airport since the Taliban took power on August 14, but the effort falls far short of the more-than 100,000 that western nations had promised to take

American troops and their allies have evacuated some 70,000 people from the airport since the Taliban took power on August 14, but the effort falls far short of the more-than 100,000 that western nations had promised to take

A US marine comforts a child at Kabul airport as the evacuation operation nears it end, with US allies saying flights could stop within the next 24 hours

A US marine comforts a child at Kabul airport as the evacuation operation nears it end, with US allies saying flights could stop within the next 24 hours

A US marine comforts a child at Kabul airport as the evacuation operation nears it end, with US allies saying flights could stop within the next 24 hours

A US marine carries a child towards an evacuation aircraft at Kabul airport as the final mercy flights depart the country

A US marine carries a child towards an evacuation aircraft at Kabul airport as the final mercy flights depart the country

A US marine carries a child towards an evacuation aircraft at Kabul airport as the final mercy flights depart the country

But, Mr Raab insisted, Britain will keep flying planes out of the country until the last possible moment in the hopes of getting as many people out as possible. 

Biden also admitted to the danger troops are in on Tuesday as he announced his decision on the deadline, saying: ‘The sooner we can finish, the better… each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.’

Many Afghans fear a repeat of the brutal five-year Taliban regime that was toppled in 2001, and violent retribution for working with foreign militaries, Western missions and the previous US-backed government.

Washington and its allies have been flying out thousands of such Afghans every day on hulking military transports, but it has become an increasingly difficult and desperate task.

The Afghan capital’s airport has been gripped by chaos as US-led troops try to maintain a secure perimeter for evacuation flights, surrounded by desperate Afghans.

Some have foreign passports, visas or eligibility to travel, but most do not. At least eight people have died in the chaos.

‘Does anyone … ANYONE … have a contact inside the airport,’ pleaded one American on a WhatsApp group set up to share information on how people can access the airport.

‘My guy worked for us 2010-15 and needs to get out with 5 of his family. This is real bad.’

The Taliban have also been accused of blocking or slowing access for many trying to reach the airport, although they denied the charge again late Tuesday.

Biden said the Taliban were taking steps to assist, but there was also an ‘acute and growing risk’ of an attack by the regional chapter of the Islamic State jihadist group.

CIA Director William Burns flew to Kabul for a secret meeting with top Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, US media reported Tuesday, the highest-level meeting so far between the US government and the new rulers of Afghanistan.

Afghan families are pictured boarding a military evacuation flight at Hamid Karzai Airport as the US prepares to withdraw from the country, with other western nations set to follow

Afghan families are pictured boarding a military evacuation flight at Hamid Karzai Airport as the US prepares to withdraw from the country, with other western nations set to follow

Afghan families are pictured boarding a military evacuation flight at Hamid Karzai Airport as the US prepares to withdraw from the country, with other western nations set to follow

A US soldier walks two Afghan women towards an evacuation plane on the runway at Hamid Karzai Airport this week

A US soldier walks two Afghan women towards an evacuation plane on the runway at Hamid Karzai Airport this week

A US soldier walks two Afghan women towards an evacuation plane on the runway at Hamid Karzai Airport this week

An Afghan woman accompanied by a young child walks towards a US evacuation plane sitting on the runway at Kabul airport

An Afghan woman accompanied by a young child walks towards a US evacuation plane sitting on the runway at Kabul airport

An Afghan woman accompanied by a young child walks towards a US evacuation plane sitting on the runway at Kabul airport

Afghan civilians pack on to a Canadian evacuation flight out of Kabul, as western nations prepare to end the mercy missions

Afghan civilians pack on to a Canadian evacuation flight out of Kabul, as western nations prepare to end the mercy missions

Afghan civilians pack on to a Canadian evacuation flight out of Kabul, as western nations prepare to end the mercy missions

The New York Times said the spy chief was not there to negotiate an extension to the pullout deadline, but for general talks on ‘evacuation operations and terrorist threats’. 

Despite the harrowing scenes at Kabul airport, the Taliban have ruled out any extension to next Tuesday’s deadline to pull out foreign troops, describing it as ‘a red line’.

‘They have planes, they have the airport, they should get their citizens and contractors out of here,’ Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday.

European nations have said they would not be able to airlift all at-risk Afghans before August 31.

‘Even if (the evacuation) goes on… a few days longer, it will not be enough,’ German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Bild TV.

A hard withdrawal deadline presents a further complication that may reduce the number of daily evacuations.

The United States deployed fresh troops for evacuations.

That 6,000-plus contingent, as well as hundreds of US officials, 600 Afghan troops and the equipment, will have to be flown out.

To do that by August 31, the Pentagon said operations would have to start winding down days in advance. 

Following their lightning victory that stunned the world, the Taliban have so far been content to allow the US-led operation to continue, focusing instead on consolidating control and forming a government.

They have vowed a softer, more inclusive regime this time around, offering amnesty to opponents and assurances of rights to women.

But many Afghans remain fearful and sceptical.

In an attempt to assuage fears, the Taliban spokesman on Tuesday urged skilled Afghans to not flee, saying the country needed ‘expert’ Afghans such as doctors and engineers.

But Zabihullah Mujahid added that women who work for the Afghan government should stay home until the security situation improves.

The Taliban have said women will be able to get an education and work, but within what they consider Islamic bounds.

People disembark a military plane after being evacuated from Afghanistan as it arrives at Melsbroek Military Airport, Belgium

People disembark a military plane after being evacuated from Afghanistan as it arrives at Melsbroek Military Airport, Belgium

People disembark a military plane after being evacuated from Afghanistan as it arrives at Melsbroek Military Airport, Belgium

Afghan refugees board buses at Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium after being evacuated from the chaos at Kabul airport

Afghan refugees board buses at Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium after being evacuated from the chaos at Kabul airport

Afghan refugees board buses at Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium after being evacuated from the chaos at Kabul airport

A bus with a Netherlands' flag on the side waits at Belgium's Melsbroek Military Airport to receive Afghan evacuees

A bus with a Netherlands' flag on the side waits at Belgium's Melsbroek Military Airport to receive Afghan evacuees

A bus with a Netherlands’ flag on the side waits at Belgium’s Melsbroek Military Airport to receive Afghan evacuees

Afghan people, who were evacuated from Kabul, disembark a plane at Torrejon Military Air Base in Madrid, Spain

Afghan people, who were evacuated from Kabul, disembark a plane at Torrejon Military Air Base in Madrid, Spain

Afghan people, who were evacuated from Kabul, disembark a plane at Torrejon Military Air Base in Madrid, Spain

An Afghan girl carrying a Mickey Mouse doll walks to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport, Virginia

An Afghan girl carrying a Mickey Mouse doll walks to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport, Virginia

An Afghan girl carrying a Mickey Mouse doll walks to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport, Virginia

Afghan families walk to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport, Virginia

Afghan families walk to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport, Virginia

Afghan families walk to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport, Virginia

Afghan families walk to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport

Afghan families walk to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport

Afghan families walk to a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center at Dulles International Airport

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