Boris Johnson has vowed to continue the evacuation effort in Afghanistan following a “barbaric” terrorist attack at Kabul airport which left multiple people dead including US troops in at least two explosions.
The Prime Minister said on Thursday the “overwhelming majority” of eligible people have already been helped to flee the Taliban by the RAF and “we are going to keep going up until the last moment” as the deadline rapidly approaches.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed two blasts occurred in a “complex attack” outside Hamid Karzai International Airport.
American officials said 11 US marines and a navy medic were killed. Mr Kirby said US personnel were also injured, and that “a number of Afghans fell victim to this heinous attack”.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said at least 13 people were killed and 15 wounded in twin suicide attacks outside the airport, which has been the centre of the effort to help people flee Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Defence did not confirm or deny whether the so-called Islamic State (IS) splinter cell, Isis-K, was believed to be behind the explosions, after earlier warnings about the terror group in Afghanistan.
We can confirm an explosion outside Kabul airport. Casualties are unclear at this time. We will provide additional details when we can.
— John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) August 26, 2021
But an anonymous US official said the blasts were “definitely believed to be” carried out by IS.
Mr Kirby said at least one explosion took place at or near the Baron Hotel, where the UK has been processing Britons and Afghans eligible for evacuation after the Taliban seized control of the nation.
He said another blast occurred a short distance away near the Abbey Gate of Kabul’s airport.
After chairing an emergency Cobra meeting, Mr Johnson said: “I can confirm that there’s been a barbaric terrorist attack, what looks like a series of attacks, in Kabul, on the airport, on the crowds at the airport, in which members of the US military, very sadly have lost their lives and many Afghan casualties as well.”
The Prime Minister told reporters in Downing Street that the the evacuation programme would work “flat out” according to “the timetable we’ve got”.
“That’s what we’re going to do because the overwhelming majority of those who are eligible have now been extracted from Afghanistan,” he added.
Around 60 people wounded in the attack were being treated at a nearby surgical centre, according to Emergency, a charity that runs a network of war hospitals and first aid posts in Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said his group “strongly condemns” the attack and alleged it happened in an area under US control.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps issued an aviation notice further advising airlines to avoid Afghan air space under 25,000 feet.
Armed forces minister James Heappey had earlier warned that there was “very credible reporting” of an “imminent” and “severe” terror threat.
He had urged people queuing outside the airport trying to flee the Taliban to move to safety amid concerns surrounding the IS terror cell.
Alicia Kearns, a member of the foreign affairs and national security strategy committees, said there had been “many hurt” in an attack near the Baron Hotel.
The Conservative MP tweeted: “A bomb or attack with gun fire at northern gate of Baron’s Hotel. Worried this will devastate evacuation – so many hurt. My heart is with all those injured and killed.”
A bomb or attack with gun fire at northern gate of Baron's hotel. Worried this will devastate evacuation – so many hurt. My heart is with all those injured and killed.
— Alicia Kearns MP for Rutland and Melton (@aliciakearns) August 26, 2021
Her colleague Nus Ghani said she was on the phone to somebody outside Kabul airport when the blast took place.
“Explosion at Kabul airport. I was on the phone to an Afghan outside the airport when he heard the explosion,” the MP tweeted, before saying he was “OK” and was heading to a “safe house”.
Former Royal Marine Paul Farthing, the founder of an animal shelter in Kabul who has has been campaigning to get his staff and animals evacuated, said his vehicle outside the airport was caught in the “chaos”.
Known as Pen, he told the PA news agency: “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.
“We’ve been in the airport, and back out of the airport; the whole thing’s a mess.”
Explosion at Kabul airport. I was on the phone to an Afghan outside the airport when he heard the explosion. Praying that he gets away safely and we get his family safe passage out of this nightmare. https://t.co/hLZIURQozp
— Nus Ghani MP (@Nus_Ghani) August 26, 2021
A local witness told PA he heard the explosion by Kabul airport as he was walking to evening prayer.
Ahmad, whose name has been changed for security reasons, said he is safe as he was some distance from the blast.
“First was explosion, and then firing started, I mean… heavy gunfire,” he said. “But even far away people were running… there’s alarm.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the reports from Kabul are “devastating”, adding: “Our thoughts are with all those killed and wounded, serving personnel supporting the evacuations and all those desperately trying to leave.”
The evacuation effort was already under extra strain after a warning on Wednesday night from the Foreign Office for UK nationals near the airport to leave and head for safety due to the “ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack”.
Mr Johnson had vowed “we’ll do everything we can to get everybody else” before the deadline for British troops to depart in advance of the exit of US forces, after President Joe Biden refused his request to extend the time frame.
But the PM conceded that although the “lion’s share” of eligible Afghans have been removed from the country, “there will be people who still need help”.
Mr Heappey said Britain had 11 flights scheduled out of Kabul on Thursday but declined to say whether that will be the end of the operation, citing the security of troops on the ground.
The US is providing security at Kabul airport, meaning other allied forces are expected to have to wind down their evacuation efforts and depart ahead of the Americans.
Mr Heappey had said eight RAF flights managed to lift 1,988 people from Kabul within the past 24 hours, taking the total since the Taliban began its march to power to 12,279.