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US launches air strike in Kabul to thwart second attack on airport

The US launched a drone strike to protect the Kabul evacuation effort on Sunday, as the Biden administration and its European allies promised to help people leave Afghanistan after Tuesday’s deadline for withdrawal. 

The US military said it had carried out a “self-defence” strike on a vehicle in the Afghan capital, which it said posed an “imminent Isis-K threat” to the airport. Isis-K, the local branch of the Islamist terror group, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on Thursday that killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 US troops.

“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” said Captain Bill Urban, a US Central Command spokesman.

Urban later added that the US was investigating reports of civilian casualties. “We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties. It is unclear what may have happened,” he said.

Footage showed a cloud of smoke above a neighbourhood in north-west Kabul, though it was not immediately clear if this was from the same attack.

The drone strike came hours after President Joe Biden warned that another terror attack was “highly likely in the next 24-36 hours”. It also highlighted the risks to those involved in the final days of the evacuation.

Jake Sullivan, the president’s National Security Adviser, told CNN: “We are doing everything in our power to prevent and disrupt the threat streams that we are seeing and stopping any kind of attack that would endanger the lives of American service members or civilians trying to get into the airport.

“But all we can do is mitigate risk, we cannot eliminate it and we are in a period of serious danger, given what we are seeing in the intelligence.”

The Taliban, which seized power this month, has increased its military presence around Kabul airport since last week’s attack, adding to concerns that its fighters are blocking large numbers of Afghans eligible for evacuation from leaving.

The US and 95 other countries, as well as the EU and Nato, released a statement saying the Taliban had promised that foreign nationals and Afghans with travel authorisation would be permitted to leave.

“We will continue issuing travel documentation to designated Afghans, and we have the clear expectation of and commitment from the Taliban that they can travel to our respective countries,” the statement said.

Taliban Fateh fighters, a ‘special forces’ unit, stand guard on a street in Kabul on August 29, 2021 © AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban has set up multiple checkpoints on the approach to the airport to search and vet arrivals, carrying lists of would-be evacuees. Some are manned by heavily armed fighters brandishing US-issued weapons and tactical gear seized from the Afghan army.

The US has evacuated or helped airlift more than 115,000 people since August 14. But the Biden administration hopes to evacuate hundreds more, including about 300 American civilians.

Many experts have warned that the administration will be unable to airlift all Americans out by Tuesday but Sullivan said individuals would still be able to leave afterwards with the help of the Taliban.

“After August 31, we believe we have substantial leverage to hold the Taliban to its commitments and allow safe passage to American citizens, legal permanent residents and [our] Afghan allies,” he said.

The French government and the UK will launch a diplomatic push to create a safe zone in the Afghan capital for those attempting to leave the country, with a UN Security Council resolution due to be tabled on Monday.

France has received backing from Germany but Paris was waiting for a response from Russia and China, also members of the UN Security Council, according to people familiar with the situation.

“Our draft resolution aims to establish, under UN control, a safe zone in Kabul which would allow the continuation of humanitarian operations,” French president Emmanuel Macron told newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

“It would give a framework for the UN to take urgent action, and above all it would let us confront everyone with their responsibilities and allow the international community to maintain pressure on the Taliban,” he added. 

The UK wrapped up its evacuation efforts over the weekend, with the last group of troops and embassy staff landing at RAF Brize Norton on Sunday. © MOD/AFP via Getty Images

Germany has not officially announced its support for the initiative but Heiko Maas, foreign minister, left for the region on Sunday to discuss how to continue evacuations of the country’s nationals and Afghan civilians.

“Germany’s commitment does not end with the completion of the military evacuation mission,” he said, and vowed to “work to ensure that international co-operation continues”.

Such efforts, he said, involved co-ordinating with neighbouring states on further evacuations and “includes the question of how civil operations can be resumed quickly at the airport. That entails a co-ordinated international approach to the Taliban.”

Biden travelled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Sunday to formally receive the bodies of the 13 US troops who were among those killed by the blast on Thursday. The president met some of the families of those service members before their flag-draped transfer cases touched down in the US.

Additional reporting by Fazelminallah Qazizai in Kabul, Leila Abboud in Paris and Erika Solomon in Berlin

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