Kabul evacuation: The last flights out of hell

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Kabul evacuation: The last flights out of hell
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The final British evacuation flights were leaving Kabul on Friday as the Government backed US President Joe Biden’s promise to hit back over the airport bombing amid the threat of further attacks.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said about 1,000 people would be flown out by the RAF on Friday following the early morning closure of the processing centre for those seeking sanctuary.

He insisted that the end of the rescue mission had not been accelerated by Thursday’s deadly attack, which claimed the lives of at least 90 Afghans and 13 US service personnel. But as an emotional Mr Biden promised to hunt down Islamic State militants in retaliation, Mr Wallace warned of a heightened risk of a further attack by terrorist groups as the airlift entered its final hours in an increasingly “volatile” situation.

He added that Britain would join the US in trying to strike back against IS following the “cowardly” murders in an “ongoing” effort to hit the terrorist group extending beyond immediate retribution.

The pledge came as:

  • Afghan and American families mourned those killed and injured in the suicide attack as Mr Wallace described how the “truly evil” bomber walked “straight into the middle” of the large crowd at the airport before detonating the device.

  • Mr Biden vowed “we will hunt you down and make you pay” as he promised retaliation against IS extremists amid a backlash in the US over the Afghan disaster.

  • Mr Wallace insisted that the British airlift was ending on schedule and had not been “hastened” by the attack.

  • The minister said that sanctuary via other routes would remain available “indefinitely” for those left behind.

  • Mr Wallace said troops had left equipment behind to clear space for more refugees and that rules were relaxed to cram more people onto flights.

Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, on Friday said he had been texting envoys in the region, former warlords and “anybody I can think of to try to get friends of mine out and into various neighbouring countries”. He told Sky News there would be “hundreds, perhaps thousands” left behind “in what could be the biggest hostage crisis the UK has ever dealt with”.

The priority today for ministers and British troops in Kabul was to ensure the safe departure of the remaining British and Afghan citizens already cleared to leave following the closure of the gate to the airport and the UK processing centre at the Baron Hotel.

“We are now processing approximately the last 1,000 people on the inside and we will fly them out today,” he said. “The gate has been closed and our ability to process any more is minimal and we won’t be calling any more people forward. We don’t have many hours left.”

Mr Wallace said Thursday’s attack, which involved a second smaller explosion, would have been even worse if British troops had not created a 300 metre buffer zone at the airport perimeter shortly before in response to intelligence of an imminent terrorist assault.

But he said the danger was not over and was instead likely to increase as the final US departure on August 31 drew nearer. “When you are dealing with crowds of thousands of people and an enemy such as Isis [Islamic State] who are absolutely determined to kill without any regard for children, families, fellow Muslims, and the rest — they don’t care.

“We think it was a suicide vest and a smaller device. The individual got to the perimeter that we had pushed out the day before in response to that threat — it was about 300 metres from the Baron Hotel — and walked straight into the middle of those families waiting.

“It shows how evil and dangerous they are. Isis have an intent. They have the capability to deploy more of these attacks. I’m concerned that until we have gone there is an absolute threat to our forces and even after we have gone there is a threat to the Afghan people from Isis who have shown no restraint over the last few years in attacking Afghans no matter who they are... The threat is obviously going to grow the closer we get to leaving,” he said.

Around 14,000 people have been airlifted out of Kabul by the RAF since August 14, including nearly 8,000 Afghans eligible for sanctuary because of their work for this country and 4,000 UK passport holders. Mr Wallace said today that this opportunity for refuge would remain open “indefinitely”.

In the US, Mr Biden was under pressure after an emotional White House briefing in the wake of the killings of 13 US service personnel.

It was the biggest single US loss since 31 of its special operations troops died when a helicopter was shot down in eastern Afghanistan a decade ago and the first US military deaths in the country since February last year.

Mr Biden said: “I bear responsibility for, fundamentally, all that has happened.”

He added: “To those who carried out this attack — as well as anyone who wishes America harm — know this: we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

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