Several killed near Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans flee prospect of Taliban rule

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Seven people have been killed in the crowds near Kabul airport, Britain's ministry of defence said on Sunday, as thousands of people try to flee Afghanistan and the threats posed by a new Taliban regime.

"Our sincere thoughts are with the families of the seven Afghan civilians who have sadly died in crowds in Kabul," the UK defence ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

"Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible."

Tens of thousands of Afghans were still racing to flee on Sunday as the United States warned of security threats at Kabul's airport gates.

At least 20 people have been killed in and around the single-runway airfield since last Sunday, a NATO official said Sunday.

But terrified Afghans continue to try and flee, deepening a tragedy at Kabul airport where the United States and its allies have been unable to cope with the huge numbers of people trying to get on evacuation flights.

Britain's Sky News on Saturday aired footage of at least three bodies covered in white tarpaulin outside the airport. It was not clear how they had died. Sky reporter Stuart Ramsay, who was at the airport, called the deaths "inevitable" and said people were being "crushed" while others were "dehydrated and terrified".

Families hoping for a miracle crowded between the barbed wire that surrounds an unofficial no man's land separating the Taliban from US troops. Roads to the airport were choked with traffic.

US President Joe Biden has described the situation as "one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history".

Circumstances were further complicated on Saturday when the US government warned its citizens in Afghanistan to avoid traveling to Kabul airport, citing "potential security threats" near its gates.

"We are advising US citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative," the alert from the US embassy in Kabul said.

The warning gave no further details but a White House official later said aides had briefed Biden on local "counterterrorism operations", including against the Islamic State group.

As thousands of Americans and Afghans wait at the airport for flights or gather nervously outside its gates, there have been "sporadic" reports, confirmed by the Pentagon, of Taliban fighters or other militants beating and harassing people trying to flee.

The Biden administration said Sunday that commercial aircraft would be marshaled to help ferry people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan under the Civil Reserve Airfleet agreement – a partnership between the aviation industry, the Defense Department and the US Department of Transportation.

A Pentagon spokesman said the 18 aircraft – including from United, American Airlines, and Delta – would not fly into Kabul but be used to transport people who have already left Afghanistan.

Biden will provide an update on Sunday on the evacuation of American citizens and refugees from Afghanistan, the White House said. The president is to speak at 4pm EDT (2000 GMT), after meeting with his national security team to hear intelligence, security and diplomatic updates on the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

'Impossible' deadline?

The US military said an Afghan woman gave birth aboard an Air Force C-17 upon landing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany after experiencing complications during the flight on Saturday. The military’s Air Mobility Command tweeted that airmen helped during the delivery of the child in the cargo bay of the aircraft. "The baby girl and mother were transported to a nearby medical facility and are in good condition," a later tweet said.

The United States, which has thousands of troops trying to secure the airport, has set a deadline to complete the evacuations by August 31. But Biden has said the deadline could be extended if necessary, pledging to get all Americans and Afghan allies out.

There are up to 15,000 Americans and 50,000 to 60,000 Afghan allies who need to be evacuated, according to the Biden administration.

"They want to evacuate 60,000 people between now and the end of this month. It's mathematically impossible," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told AFP. Borrell added that "we have complained" to the Americans that their airport security was overly strict and hampering attempts by Afghans who worked for the Europeans to enter.

In the past 24 hours, about 3,900 people have been evacuated from Kabul on 35 coalition aircraft, including commercial airlines, and 3,900 others on 23 U.S. military flights, according to the White House. Altogether about 25,100 people have been evacuated since August 14, it added.

US authorities have said they hope to ramp up the evacuations to between 5,000 and 9,000 a day.

There are countless others, including journalists, who fear repression under the Taliban and are also trying to flee.

"We know that we're fighting against both time and space," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby conceded.

The Taliban have so far been publicly content to allow the US military to oversee the airlift, while apparently focusing on how they will run the country once the foreign forces leave.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar flew into Kabul on Saturday, and officials said they were mapping out an "inclusive government".

A senior Taliban official told AFP that Baradar would meet jihadi leaders, elders and politicians in coming days.

The gathering in Kabul included leaders of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist organisation with million-dollar bounties on its leadership.

The Taliban swept into Kabul last week, ending two decades of war, stunning the world as government forces surrendered en masse and raising questions about Washington's ability to support its allies.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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