Boris Johnson has vowed to continue the evacuation effort in Afghanistan following a “barbaric” terrorist attack at Kabul airport that left dozens of 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.
A US general said gunmen from so-called Islamic State (IS) had opened fire on civilians, and the terror group later claimed responsibility for the atrocity, according to multiple reports, following earlier suggestions that Afghanistan splinter cell Isis-K was behind the attack.
Officials have said at least 72 people were killed, including 11 US Marines and one US Navy medic, and that more than 150 people were injured, including 15 US service personnel.
The Ministry of Defence said there have been no reported UK military or UK Government casualties.
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
After chairing an emergency Cobra meeting on Thursday, 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 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.
US president Joe Biden addressed the American nation from the White House, and warned those responsible for the attack: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
He vowed to complete the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan despite the blasts, which he blamed on the IS group’s Afghanistan affiliate, saying there was no evidence they colluded with the Taliban.
Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told a news conference that IS gunmen had attacked civilians and that further attacks were likely.
The general said his “working assumption” is that a suicide bomber approached US service personnel near the Abbey Gate of the airport, where there was then an explosion followed by gunfire directed at US military personnel and civilians.
He said another bomb went off in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel, where the UK has been processing Britons and Afghans eligible for evacuation after the Taliban seized control of the nation.
Gen McKenzie said: “The attack on the Abbey Gate was followed by a number of Isis gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces.”
“The threat from Isis is extremely real,” he said, adding the US will continue its evacuation mission and that he does not expect any further US troops will be flown in to assist.
An official in Kabul said at least 60 Afghans were killed and 143 others wounded in the airport attack.
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 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
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 were “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”.
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.