World

7 dead in chaos at Kabul airport as Afghans desperately try to flee the country

Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of Kabul's international airport Monday, some so desperate to escape the Taliban capture of their country that they held onto an American military jet as it took off and plunged to their deaths.

U.S. President Joe Biden defends his decision to withdraw troops

Afghans chase U.S. air force plane in desperate attempt to escape country

4 months ago
0:38
Thousands of people are trying to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban strengthens its grip on the country. Some people chased a U.S. air force plane down the tarmac, while others tried to force their way onto planes at the Kabul airport. 0:38

Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of Kabul's international airport Monday, some so desperate to escape the Taliban capture of their country that they held onto an American military jet as it took off and plunged to their deaths in chaos that killed at least seven people, U.S. officials said. 

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. forces killed two people he described as carrying weapons in the melee.

U.S. forces are planning to wrap up their oversight of the evacuation by Aug. 31, which is also the date Biden has set for officially ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, Kirby told reporters late Monday.

The U.S. hopes to fly out up to 5,000 people a day once more of 6,000 U.S troops being deployed to secure the evacuation arrive, and once more transport planes can land, he said.

The crowds rushing the airport came as the Taliban enforced its rule over the wider capital after a lightning advance across the country that took just over a week to dethrone the Western-backed government.

While there were no major reports of abuses, many stayed home and remained fearful as the insurgents' advance saw prisons emptied and armouries looted.

Collapse of Western-trained security forces

The Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing a stunning end to a two-decade campaign in which the U.S. and its allies had tried to transform Afghanistan.

Afghan people sit along the tarmac as they wait to leave the Kabul airport. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

The country's Western-trained security forces collapsed or fled in the face of an insurgent offensive that tore through the country ahead of the planned withdrawal of the last U.S. troops at the end of the month.

U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged Monday that the collapse of the Afghan government occurred much faster than his administration expected.

Yet the president said that the rapid end of the Afghan government only vindicates his choice to end the war.

"American troops cannot and should not be fighting the war, and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves," Biden said.

In the capital, a tense calm set in, with most people hiding in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections.

There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and there was less traffic than usual on eerily quiet streets. Taliban fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city's main squares.

Many fear chaos, after the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners and the police simply melted away, or a return to the kind of brutal rule the Taliban imposed when it was last in power.

Wahidullah Qadiri, a Kabul resident, said he hoped for peace after decades of war that have claimed the lives of two of his brothers and a cousin.

"We haven't seen anything but catastrophes and fighting, so we always live with hope for a long-lasting peace," he said.

Hundreds of Afghan people run alongside a U.S. Air Force plane, with some climbing on it, as it moves down a runway at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday. (The Associated Press)

Panicked race to leave country

Thousands of others doubted peace would come and raced to Kabul's international airport as the U.S. military and others continued evacuation flights.

Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people running across the tarmac as U.S. troops fired warning shots in the air. One showed a crowd pushing and shoving its way up a staircase, trying to board a plane, with some people hanging off the railings.

In another video, hundreds of people could be seen running alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moved down a runway. Some clung to the side of the jet just before takeoff. Another video showed several falling through the air as the airplane rapidly gained altitude over the city. 

Senior U.S. military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing operation, told The Associated Press that the chaos left seven dead, including several who fell from the flight.

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Kabul Mayor Muhammad Dawood Sultanzoy said Monday he would continue to do his job as Taliban leaders arrive in the city from across the country and abroad. (Rahmat Gul/AP Photo) 1:10

Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, described scenes of panic at the airport, where she was hoping to board an evacuation flight.

After waiting six hours, she heard shots from outside, where a crowd of men and women were trying to climb aboard a plane.

She said U.S. troops sprayed gas and fired into the air to disperse the crowds after people scaled the walls and swarmed onto the tarmac. Gunfire could be heard in the voice messages she sent to The Associated Press.

The Pentagon said late Monday afternoon that the airfield at Kabul's airport had been reopened and planes were again taking off after a pause earlier in the day.

Late Monday night, hundreds of people remained trapped between American forces trying to push them out of the airport and Taliban forces trying to keep them in, witnesses said.

An Associated Press journalist also saw what appeared to be an airstrike target two vehicles near the airport.

See the scene at Kabul's airport: 

Afghans are also trying to leave through land border crossings, all of which are now controlled by the Taliban.

Rakhmatula Kuyash, 30, was one of the few people with a visa allowing him to cross into Uzbekistan on Sunday. He said his children and relatives had to stay behind.

"I'm lost and I don't know what to do. I left everything behind," he said.

Others who attempted to escape did not make it out of the country safely. Uzbekistan air defences shot down an Afghan military aircraft that tried to enter the country without permission. The  two pilots were reportedly injured and in custody.

The U.S. Embassy has been evacuated and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries have also closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.

By morning, Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Authority issued an advisory saying the "civilian side" of the airport had been "closed until further notice" and that the military controlled the airspace.

The speed of the Taliban offensive through the country appears to have stunned U.S. officials. Just days before the insurgents entered Kabul with little if any resistance, a U.S. military assessment predicted it could take months for the capital to fall.

U.K. defence minister says Taliban 'are in control' 

The Taliban are in control of Afghanistan, and British and NATO forces will not be returning to fight the insurgents, Britain's defence secretary, Ben Wallace, told Sky News on Monday.

"I acknowledge that the Taliban are in control of the country," Wallace told Sky News. "I mean, you don't have to be a political scientist to spot that's where we're at."

Asked if Britain and NATO would return to Afghanistan, Wallace said: "That's not on the cards that we're going to go back."

Taliban fighters stand guard along a street at the Massoud Square in Kabul on Monday. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

In addition to the 4,000 or so U.K. nationals in Afghanistan, Britain is processing claims of Afghan citizens, such as interpreters, who have helped in the 20 years since the first troops arrived following the 9/11 attacks.

But Wallace later held back tears as he conceded in an interview via webcam on LBC Radio that Britain was unlikely to be able to evacuate all its Afghan allies from Kabul.

Wallace said Monday it was a "really deep part of regret for me" that not all Afghans eligible to come to the U.K. will be able to do so during the current evacuation drive.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with a harsh form of Islamic law. Women were largely confined to their homes and suspected criminals were punished with amputation of limbs or public execution.

The Taliban have sought to project greater moderation in recent years, but many Afghans remain skeptical and fear a rollback of individual rights.

Travellers enter Pakistan through a border crossing in Chaman on Monday. (Jafar Khan/The Associated Press)

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson, tweeted that fighters had been instructed to protect "life, property and honour," and the group has also said it will stay out of the upscale diplomatic quarter housing the U.S. Embassy complex.

Meanwhile, the head of U.S. Central Command met face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders in Qatar and won their agreement to establish an arrangement under which evacuation operations at the airport can continue without interference, a U.S. defence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks not yet announced publicly. 

'It feels like our life and our future has ended'

But some worried those promises are hollow. On Monday, Nillan, a 27-year-old resident of Kabul, said she didn't see a single woman out on the streets during a 15-minute drive, "only men and boys."

"It feels like time has stopped. Everything's changed," she told The Associated Press. She said even the most independent Afghan women now have to worry about the simplest things, such as how to get groceries in the absence of a male escort.

Nillan, who spoke on condition that she only be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety, said the Taliban ran TV ads urging people to return to work, without mentioning women.

"We don't know what to do, we don't know if we still have jobs," she said. "It feels like our life and our future has ended."

WATCH | Taliban declares victory in Afghanistan:  

Criticism mounts against U.S. as Taliban declares victory

4 months ago
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The Taliban celebrated its victory in Afghanistan while U.S. President Joe Biden defended the decision to pull U.S. troops out of the country during a security and humanitarian crisis. 2:06

The Taliban had also harboured Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the years before they carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. That sparked a U.S.-led invasion that rapidly scattered al-Qaeda and drove the Taliban from power.

But the U.S. lost focus during the Iraq war and the Taliban eventually regrouped. The militants captured much of the Afghan countryside in recent years and then swept into cities as U.S. forces prepared to withdraw ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline.

With files from Reuters

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