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The Taliban has closed the road to Kabul airport for Afghans, a move that threatens to strand those vulnerable to reprisals from the Islamist movement.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group would allow foreigners to leave through the airport but insisted that all evacuations had to be complete by the August 31 deadline previously set by the Biden administration.
“We don’t allow it any more and call on them to evacuate by that date,” Mujahid told reporters. “They [western states] have the possibilities, they have the planes, the airfield is with them and they can evacuate people by that date.”
He was speaking at a press conference in Kabul shortly before western leaders were expected to push US president Joe Biden at a virtual G7 meeting to negotiate with the Taliban to provide more time for the evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghan allies.
As international efforts to evacuate foreigners and Afghans who worked for western militaries and other organisations were blighted by chaos at the airport this week, CIA director William Burns met the Taliban in Kabul.
The secret meeting with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — the highest person-to-person meeting since the Islamist group returned to power — took place in Kabul on Monday, a person familiar with the encounter told the Financial Times. The CIA declined to comment.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, pictured in Russia in March © Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A day earlier, Biden had said he “hoped” to stick to the US deadline for the withdrawal of all American troops from the country. But Washington has come under mounting criticism about the manner of its withdrawal and the mayhem around the evacuation process as thousands of desperate Afghan families have thronged the airport in the hope of securing a flight out of the country.
The fear for many Afghans is that the Taliban will persecute those who have worked for western militaries, such as translators and drivers, as well as journalists and critics of the Islamist group.
The Taliban seized power 10 days ago after a lightning blitz across the country following the drawdown of US troops.
Mujahid rejected suggestions that the Taliban was searching for individuals associated with the old regime, reiterating that the group had announced a general amnesty. He said hospitals and schools had reopened, and banks were due to reopen on Wednesday.
He said Afghans at the airport had nothing to fear and should go home. “We guarantee their security,” he said.
Groups of people wait on the tarmac at Kabul’s airport on Monday © Maxar Tech/Reuters
Many of those scrambling to board flights are among the most educated members of the population, who are needed to keep the economy and public services running.
Western officials have expressed concerns that the security situation is in danger of deteriorating as the August 31 deadline looms.
“As we get closer to the deadline, I think it’s correct to say the security risk goes up,” Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, told Sky News. “It just gets more and more dangerous as add-on groups and other terrorist groups such as Isis would like to be seen taking credit, or would like to be seen to chase the west out of the airport.”
The US military reported its biggest day of airlifts out of Afghanistan on Tuesday, with 37 US flights taking 12,700 people out of the country in 24 hours. Including coalition flights, 21,600 people were evacuated in the same period, the White House said. But many more are still in Kabul.
Wallace said the UK had evacuated more than 8,600 people since August 14, including about 2,000 in the past 24 hours. The UK has pledged to take 20,000 Afghan refugees under a new resettlement scheme announced last week. The Home Office has said that it expected the first 5,000 people to be relocated to the UK in the first year of the scheme.