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Western countries rush to complete Afghan evacuation before troops leave

Western nations rushed to evacuate people from Afghanistan on Wednesday but acknowledged that many Afghans who helped during two decades of war would be left behind to face an uncertain fate under the Taliban when foreign troops leave next week.

U.S. says it will prioritize evacuating its own troops in final 2 days before Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline

In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, Italian coalition forces assist and escort evacuees for onward processing during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)

The latest on Afghanistan:

Western nations rushed to evacuate people from Afghanistan on Wednesday but acknowledged that many Afghans who helped during two decades of war would be left behind to face an uncertain fate under the Taliban when foreign troops leave next week.

The effort was taking place against a chaotic backdrop in the capital, Kabul, and its airport, where a massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans is under way and due to last until Tuesday.

Pressure to complete the evacuations has intensified amid concerns about the security situation outside the airport, where the Taliban are in control.

In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul advised U.S. citizens to avoid travelling to the airport. It said those already at a number of the airport's gates should leave immediately. It did not give a reason why the alert was issued.

U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered all troops out of the country by the end of the month, spurning pleas from European allies for more time to get people who helped NATO countries during the conflict to safety.

U.S soldiers stand guard Wednesday at the airport tower near an evacuation control checkpoint during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. (The Associated Press)

In the 10 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations ever, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 in the past 24 hours. The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.

Biden, implementing a withdrawal negotiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump, said U.S. troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger if they stayed.

The White House said Biden was briefed on Wednesday on contingency plans for the Afghanistan evacuation as well as the threat from the ISIS-K militant group.

Britain's Foreign Office said the security situation in Afghanistan remained volatile, with a "high threat of a terrorist attack."

Early Thursday, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne similarly warned of a high threat of a terrorist attack near the airport in Kabul, as Canberra urged its citizens and those with a visa for Australia to evacuate the area.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kabul on Wednesday. (Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/The Associated Press)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August, and the State Department was reaching out to about 1,500 who remained there.

Blinken told a news conference there was no deadline for the effort to help people who want to leave Afghanistan, both Americans and others, and that it would continue for "as long as it takes."

The U.S. military said it would shift its focus to evacuating its own troops in the final two days before the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.

The Taliban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume after the foreign troops go.

Several of Washington's European allies say they no longer have time to rescue all of the many thousands of Afghans who helped their forces and their diplomatic and aid efforts.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the deadline for relocating people was up to the last minute of the month. France said it would push on with evacuations as long as possible but was likely to end them in the coming hours or days. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would try to help Afghans even after the deadline expired.

The Netherlands said it was all but certain that many people eligible for asylum would not be taken out in time.

Meanwhile, Poland and Belgium said Wednesday they had ended their evacuations from Afghanistan. The Czech Republic declared its own evacuation mission complete last week, and Hungary said it plans to end its operations soon.

WATCH | Relocated Afghans arrive in the U.S.: 

Losing hope as window for escape from Kabul slams shut

3 months ago
2:12
With a rapidly closing window on Canada's evacuation efforts, even some people approved to get on planes can't access the Kabul airport. For them and their families, hope is quickly turning to fear and anguish. 2:12

Seeking flights out

Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul's airport seeking flights out since the takeover by the Islamist militants.

On Wednesday, many people milled about outside the airport — where soldiers from the United States, Britain and other nations were trying to maintain order amid the dust and heat.

They carried bags and suitcases stuffed with possessions, and waved documents at soldiers in the hope of gaining entry. One man, standing knee-deep in a flooded ditch, passed a child to a man above.

"I learned from an email from London that the Americans are taking people out. That's why I've come, so I can go abroad," said one man, Aizaz Ullah.

While the focus is now on those trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population, aid agencies say.

"There's a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by COVID," David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, told Reuters in Doha, saying that about 14 million people were threatened with starvation.

The UN human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including "summary executions" of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate reports of atrocities.

See what's happening with evacuation efforts:

People who want to flee Afghanistan continue to wait at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Tuesday. U.S. military leaders said Wednesday that more than 10,000 people were there waiting for evacuation flights. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, Italian coalition forces assist and escort evacuees for onward processing during an evacuation at the Kabul airport on Tuesday. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)
In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, families board a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during ongoing evacuations from Afghanistan. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)
Families evacuated from Kabul walk through the terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport before boarding a bus after they arrived in the United States on Tuesday. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)
Belongings of Afghan people who were evacuated from Kabul await them on the ground after disembarking from a plane at Torrejon Military Air Base on Tuesday in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations itself leaves behind around 3,000 Afghan staff at its mission. A UN security document reviewed by Reuters described dozens of incidents of threats, the looting of UN offices and physical abuse of staff since Aug. 10. Gunmen have come looking for some, while others have gone into hiding.

The Taliban's 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions, the curtailment of political rights and basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work and confined to their homes without male chaperones.

Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again. The Taliban have said they will respect human rights including those of women, and not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

"Every woman I know has the same fear as I do. What will now happen to our children if we are punished for our work? What will happen to our families? What will they do to us as women?" an Afghan woman who has worked for the United Nations for several years told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Foreign troops must leave by deadline: Taliban

The Taliban are seeking to persuade people at the airport to go home, saying they have nothing to fear.

"Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights," Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter. "People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after Aug. 31."

The Taliban have asked Turkey to provide help to keep the airport open after foreign troops leave, but have also said no Turkish troops will be permitted to stay. Turkey began removing its troops on Wednesday.

WATCH | An Afghan interpreter's dangerous journey out of Kabul: 

Relocated Afghans arrive in U.S. ahead of Aug. 31 deadline

3 months ago
0:39
A flight carrying Afghan nationals landed in Dulles International Airport in Virginia, as efforts to get willing people out of Afghanistan pick up speed. 0:39

In Washington, Blinken said there were "very active" efforts underway on the part of countries in the region to see whether they could play a role in keeping the airport open or reopening it in the event it closed after foreign troops left.

The U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed swiftly after Biden withdrew the troops, two decades after they ousted the Taliban in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, planned from Afghan territory by al-Qaeda.

The Taliban are switching focus to how to run a country in crisis. Key posts are expected to be filled by loyal veterans of their insurgency.

According to Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency, the future finance minister will be Gul Agha, who is on international sanctions lists for acting as the insurgents' financial chief. Al-Jazeera news channel earlier reported the new defence minister would be Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former detainee at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

With files from The Associated Press

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