A panicked rush of people trying to enter Kabul International Airport killed seven Afghan civilians in the crowd, the British military said on Sunday, highlighting the danger that still exists for those facing the takeover of the country flee by the Taliban.
The dead come as a group of militants opposing Taliban rule fights insurgents in the mountains and valleys north of Kabul and conquers several rural areas. Although the details of the fighting are still unclear, it is the first organized resistance to rise against the Taliban since they attacked across the country in less than a week to capture the majority of the country and its capital. The Taliban sent fighters on Sunday to launch a possible offensive there.
Kabul’s airport, now one of the few ways out of the country for the millions in the city, has seen days of chaos since the Taliban marched into the capital on August 15 with low-flying attack helicopters clearing the runway. Several Afghans fell to their deaths hanging on the side of a U.S. military cargo plane, some of the seven perishing that day alone.
In chaotic scenes on Saturday, British and Western troops in full riot gear tried to control crowds large enough to be seen on satellite photos crowding into the airport. They carried away some who were sweating and pale. At temperatures of 34 degrees Celsius, the soldiers sprayed the gathering with water from a hose or gave them bottled water to pour over them.
The British military recognized the seven civilian deaths in the crowds on Sunday. There were other mass storms and crushing injuries in the crowd, particularly when Taliban fighters shot in the air to drive those desperate to take a flight out of the country.
“The conditions on site remain extremely challenging, but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely as possible,” said a statement from the Defense Ministry.
It was not immediately clear whether those killed had been physically crushed, suffocated, or had a fatal heart attack in the crowd. Soldiers covered several corpses with white clothes to hide them from sight. Other troops stood on concrete barriers or shipping containers trying to calm the crowd. Shots were occasionally fired.
The chaos at Kabul Airport comes as a new, perceived threat from the group affiliated with the Islamic State Group in Afghanistan. Other planes have shot flares on take-off to confuse possible heat-seeking missiles aimed at the planes.
Amir Khan Motaqi, head of the Taliban’s leadership council, criticized the US for the situation at the airport in an audio clip posted online on Sunday. He described US actions as “tyranny” – even though Taliban fighters have beaten and shot at those who tried to reach the airport in the past week.
“All of Afghanistan is safe, but the American-run airport is anarchy,” he said. “The US shouldn’t defame itself, shouldn’t embarrass the world, and shouldn’t give our people (the Taliban) this mentality, which is some kind of enemy.”
In a video call late on Saturday evening with an Iranian state television station, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem also blamed the Americans for the deaths at the airport in a quick and aggressive interview.
“The Americans have announced that we will take you to America, and people have gathered at Kabul airport,” said Naeem. “If it was announced in any country in the world now, wouldn’t people go?”
The presenter on Iranian state television, who has long criticized America since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, said quickly: “That will not happen in Iran.”
Naeem replied, “Be sure this will happen everywhere.”
Meanwhile, fighting has broken out in the Afghan province of Baghlan, around 120 kilometers north of Kabul. Forces organizing under the banner of the “popular uprising” have captured three districts in the Andarab Valley, located in the Hindu Kush mountains near Panjshir, the only province not yet under the control of the Taliban.
On Sunday the Taliban posted a video online showing fighters, including their elite special forces, preparing to go there, possibly to fight the forces of the “popular uprising”. Four officials said the Taliban went to the Keshnabad area in the Andarab Valley to kidnap the children of their opponents.
Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa, the former Balkh province intelligence chief, and Abdul Ahmad Dadgar, another leader of the uprising, alleged Taliban militants attacked and burned people’s homes while kidnapping children. Two other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also alleged that the Taliban had arrested the fighters’ children. The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the fighting.
Later on Sunday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin activated the initial stages of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program calling for 18 aircraft from American airlines to help transport Afghan refugees once they were evacuated from their country by military aircraft. As part of the voluntary program, civil airlines increase the capabilities of military aircraft during a national defense crisis. This program was created in the course of the Berlin Airlift.
The Biden administration required three planes each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
In the meantime, the top political leader of the Taliban has arrived in Kabul for talks about the formation of a new government. The presence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who returned to Kandahar from Qatar earlier this week, was confirmed by a Taliban official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the media.
Afghan officials familiar with the talks held in the capital say the Taliban said it would not make any announcements about their government until the August 31 deadline for US troop withdrawal.