Time running out for Kabul evacuation effort amid terror threat, PM warns

Boris Johnson has said time is running out for the evacuation effort in Kabul as the operation was strained by a warning that a lethal terror attack could be launched within hours.

The Prime Minister said on Thursday morning that the “overwhelming majority” of eligible people have now been evacuated from Afghanistan, but he conceded the time left is now “quite short”.

He 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 on Tuesday, after President Joe Biden refused his request to extend the time frame.

Mr Johnson’s pledge came after armed forces minister James Heappey warned there is “very credible reporting” of an “imminent” and “severe” threat to Kabul airport.

Mr Heappey called on those queuing outside Hamid Karzai International Airport to move to safety amid concerns over an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, known as Isis-K.

He said Britain has 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.

The Prime Minister told reporters: “In the time we have left, which may be – as I’m sure everybody can appreciate – quite short, we’ll do everything we can to get everybody else.”

He also warned of the threat being posed by Isis-K, while speaking on a visit to the Permanent Joint Headquarters in north London, where he met military personnel co-ordinating the evacuation effort.

“I think we have to be transparent about the risks, that we have to be realistic about what’s going on, and you’ll appreciate that there are Islamic State Khorasan province terrorists out there,” Mr Johnson said.

“I can’t go into the details, clearly. But we have to be mindful of the security of our personnel, but also of the Afghan people who are trying to get out.”

Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan
Passengers disembark from a Voyager after arriving at RAF Brize Norton from the Middle East (SAC Samantha Holden RAF/Ministry of Defence PA)

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.

The Prime Minister conceded that, although the “lion’s share” of eligible Afghans had been removed from the country, “there will be people who still need help”.

Amid concerns the Taliban could block citizens from leaving, Mr Johnson warned the group it must allow people to leave if Afghanistan is to benefit from engagement from the wider world.

He said the G7 agreed that “safe passage for those who want to come out is the key precondition” of development aid as well as diplomatic and political relationships.

The terror threat was heaping extra pressure on the operation to help people flee the nation captured by the Taliban in the wake of the US’s major withdrawal of troops.

Mr Heappey told BBC Breakfast: “The credibility of the reporting has reached the stage where we believe there is a very imminent, a highly lethal, attack possible within Kabul.

US soldiers stand inside the airport wall as hundreds of people gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan
US soldiers stand inside the airport wall as hundreds of people gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport (Wali Sabawoon/AP)

“And, as a consequence, we’ve had to change the travel advice to advise people not to come to the airport, indeed to move away from the airport, find a place of safety and await further instruction.”

He told LBC radio the possible attack could come within “hours”, adding that the “opportunism of wanting to target a major international humanitarian mission is just utterly deplorable”.

With the main route to flee under threat, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace reportedly told MPs that crossing the Afghanistan border in order to leave would be a “better option”.

The Government has previously said it will increase diplomatic support in neighbouring countries to process refugees who escape from Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, it was believed nearly 2,000 people assessed as eligible under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) remained on the ground.

But Mr Heappey said the number outstanding is now “potentially half” of the previous estimate.