Kabul airport: footage appears to show Afghans falling from plane after takeoff

·8-min read
Kabul airport: footage appears to show Afghans falling from plane after takeoff

Desperate Afghans clung to the side of a moving US military plane leaving Kabul airport, with at least two apparently falling to their deaths from the undercarriage immediately after takeoff.

Video footage shows hundreds of people running alongside the plane as it taxies along the runway of Kabul international airport on Monday. A number hang on to the side of the C-17A aircraft, just below the wing. Others jog alongside waving and cheering, as its engines whine.

As the plane soars towards the mountains overlooking the Afghan capital, two people can be seen falling, first one and then another. Horrified onlookers left behind on the tarmac point upwards, watching in disbelief.

A second video shows the bodies of three people – two men and a woman – lying on the ground in the airport complex. It is unclear if they came from the plane or died in other circumstances. One witness said he saw a body in the road. Taliban fighters nearby were firing warning shots to control the crowds, he said, adding: “Almost certainly a gunshot wound.”

The chaotic and tragic scenes at the airport after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban are likely to become a defining symbol of the west’s failure in Afghanistan. They follow the evacuation by helicopter on Sunday of the US embassy, and other diplomatic missions, in images reminiscent of the 1975 fall of Saigon.

Despite Taliban reassurances that there would be no reprisals against the civilian population, thousands of Afghans on Monday were trying to flee. The airport – secured by the US military – was the only feasible route out after the Islamist group took control of the country’s land borders.

Those in Kabul seeking to exit faced a grim choice: stay put at home for now or chance a dash to the airport. One resident, Sayed, said his father-in-law who had worked for a US company received an American visa on Monday. He was unsure what to do. “The way to the airport is dangerous,” he said.

Taliban fighters were in total control of the city. On Sunday evening they moved into the presidential palace after Afghanistan’s elected president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. Access to Hamid Karzai airport, 3 miles (5km) from the centre of the capital, is now only possible via multiple Taliban checkpoints.

The US, UK, Germany, Canada and a host of other coalition nations are seeking to evacuate their nationals. The southern, civilian side of the airport came under fire on Sunday, and on Monday morning there were reports US troops had fired into the air to disperse surging crowds.

Related: The fall of Kabul: a 20-year mission collapses in a single day

All civilian flights were temporarily suspended on Monday for safety reasons. A US official quoted by Reuters said military flights would resume “shortly”. Foreign embassies told their nationals and Afghan citizens it was not safe to travel to the airport and only to go there if instructed. Embassy staff were being helicoptered to the military side of the airport, which US soldiers have secured.

Videos from the airport show people pouring into the terminal building. Thousands of people – including parents carrying young children – are seen surging on to the tarmac. Others scale the perimeter wall or shin up gantries in an attempt to board flights. US Humvees are visible on the ground. In one video a woman calls out: “Look at the state of the people of Afghanistan.”

Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, described scenes of total panic. After waiting six hours, she heard shots from outside, from where a crowd of men and women were trying to get onboard a plane. She said US troops sprayed gas and fired into the air to disperse the crowds. Gunfire could be heard, the Associated Press reported.

Shafi Arifi, who had a ticket to travel to Uzbekistan on Sunday, was unable to board her plane because it was packed with people who had raced across the tarmac and climbed inside. There were no police or airport staff in sight, she said.

“There was no room for us to stand,” the 24-year-old said. “Children were crying, women were shouting, young and old men were so angry and upset, no one could hear each other. There was no oxygen to breathe.” After a woman fainted and was carried off the plane, Arifi gave up and went back home.

US military officials were overseeing air traffic control, which was still being run by Afghan nationals. An additional 1,000 US troops flown into the country – bringing the number of newly deployed to 6,000 – were helping to secure the airfield.

Map of Kabul airport

Throughout Sunday, Kabul was seized by a rising panic. As helicopters ferried US nationals from the US embassy to the airport, smoke rose from near the American compound as staff destroyed sensitive documents, and the US flag was lowered and removed.

France, Germany and the Netherlands, all Nato members, said they were pulling their diplomats out of their embassies.

Fearful that the Taliban could reimpose the brutal rule they enforced before 2001, Afghans sought ways out of the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings.

Related: An Afghan woman in Kabul: ‘Now I have to burn everything I achieved’

Those who had fled to the presumed safety of the capital from Taliban-controlled regions remained camped in parks and open spaces throughout the city.

On Sunday the Taliban captured the eastern city of Jalalabad without resistance from government forces, giving them control of one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan from Pakistan.

They also took the nearby Torkham border post with Pakistan, leaving Kabul airport as the only way out of Afghanistan still under government control.

The US embassy in Kabul said the situation in the city was unpredictable. “The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly, including at the airport,” it said. “There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place.” Almost all US embassy staff are now at the airport.

Taliban fighters stand outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul
Taliban fighters stand outside Hamid Karzai international airport in Kabul. Photograph: Reuters

Ghani fled the country before the insurgents’ entry – reportedly to Tashkent – saying he wanted to “prevent a flood of bloodshed”.

“The Taliban have won with the judgment of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” he said.

Related: Timeline: the Taliban’s sweeping offensive in Afghanistan

In a joint statement, the US departments of defence and state said American citizens and locally employed staff of the US mission in Kabul would be evacuated along with “other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals” in the coming days.

“And we will accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for US special immigrant visas, nearly 2,000 of whom have already arrived in the United States over the past two weeks. For all categories, Afghans who have cleared security screening will continue to be transferred directly to the United States. And we will find additional locations for those yet to be screened.”

Asked whether the evacuation was evocative of the chaos of the US departure from Vietnam in 1975, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said: “Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon.”

But in a sign of the chaotic and desperate situation, the British ambassador to Kabul, Sir Laurie Bristow, was said to be at Hamid Karzai airport helping the handful of diplomats still in the country process the applications of Afghan nationals who had worked alongside British forces now trying to get out of the country.

Afghan passengers crowd at the airport as they wait to leave from Kabul
Afghan passengers crowd at the airport as they wait to leave from Kabul. Photograph: Shakib Rahmani/AFP/Getty Images

After the Foreign Office initially said 34 Chevening scholars who were set to fly to the UK to study at British universities could not come because their visas could not be processed at the Kabul embassy, Boris Johnson intervened, saying: “We do want to make sure they are able to come and so we are doing whatever we can to accelerate their visas to get them over as well.”

The Taliban spokesperson Mohammad Naeem said they had achieved “what we were seeking, which is the freedom of our country and the independence of our people”.

“We will not allow anyone to use our lands to target anyone, and we do not want to harm others,” Naeem said. The group would not interfere in the affairs of others and, in return, would not allow interference in their affairs, he said. “We do not think that foreign forces will repeat their failed experience in Afghanistan once again.”