The United States has warned crowds trying to access Kabul airport to leave the area, as Britain and Australia cited the “high threat” of a terrorist attack.
All three countries asked that people no longer attempt to travel to the airport, a distressing call as people with practically no other means of escape from Afghanistan attempt to save their lives and those of loved ones.
A flurry of near-identical travel warnings from London, Canberra and Washington late on Wednesday urged people gathered in the area to vacate and move to a safe location.
The security warnings about the airport were specific. “Those at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately,” said the US State Department in a warning to its citizens, citing unspecified “security threats”. It advised people to approach only if “you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so”.
Australia’s department of foreign affairs said there was an “ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack” and told its citizens and visa holders: “Do not travel to Kabul Hamid Karzai international airport. If you’re in the area of the airport, move to a safe location and await further advice.”
London issued a similar warning, adding “if you can leave Afghanistan safely by other means, you should do so immediately”. Earlier, UK defence sources voiced particular concerns about the risk of a suicide bombing by the group Isis-K, an Islamic State-affiliated group.
Late on Wednesday, the British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said Afghans who want to flee to the UK may be better off “trying to get to the border” than awaiting RAF evacuation.
Wallace, in a briefing to MPs, also signalled there were few places left on British rescue flights, which have evacuated more than 11,000 people from Kabul since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan less than two weeks ago.
However, on Thursday, hours after the warnings, an unnamed western diplomat at the airport told Reuters that huge crowds continued to throng the gates of the airport.
The diplomat said evacuation flights would pick up on Thursday after slowing down on Wednesday.
Securing passengers for the huge military transport planes Washington and its allies have been flying out of the airport every day has become an increasingly difficult and desperate task, as crowds, including distraught families, struggle to access the Taliban-ringed airport.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that as many as 1,500 Americans may be awaiting evacuation from Afghanistan, a figure that suggests the US may accomplish its highest priority for the Kabul airlift – rescuing US citizens– ahead of President Joe Biden’s deadline of Tuesday next week, despite growing concerns about terror threats targeting the airport.
Untold thousands of at-risk Afghans, however, still are struggling to get into the airport.
On Wednesday, several of the Americans working phones and pulling strings to get out former Afghan colleagues, women’s advocates, journalists and other vulnerable Afghans told the Associated Press they had seen little concrete US action so far to get those Afghans past Taliban checkpoints and through US-controlled airport gates to promised evacuation flights.
“It’s 100% up to the Afghans to take these risks and try to fight their way out,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director with the International Refugee Assistance Project.
At least 20 people have died in desperate scrambles in and around the airport, as many continue to question why evacuations were not better planned for.
Washington said the Taliban had made assurances that Americans, “at-risk” Afghans and people from other nations would be allowed to leave even after Tuesday’s deadline for US troops to depart.
“They have a responsibility to hold to that commitment and provide safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave the country,” Blinken told reporters.
But US allies who were part of the coalition in Afghanistan have been winding up their own evacuations. Belgium, Poland and Czech Republic have already ended evacuations from Kabul.
France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, indicated it was “very probable” that its operations to evacuate its citizens and partners would end on Thursday.
Other European nations, including American allies Germany and the UK, had pressed for a longer window but Biden’s decision to stick to the 31 August deadline left them with no choice but to plan according to the deadline.
“That the overall deployment literally stands and falls with the stance of the militarily strongest member of the alliance, the US, was always clear to us,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech to parliament on Wednesday.
She added that Germany would “continue the evacuation operation for as long as possible,” without specifying when operations would end.
Russia evacuated more than 500 people on four military planes on Wednesday – its first airlift operation since evacuations began, which marks a shift in Russia’s stance on Afghanistan.
Turkey said it would start withdrawing the last few hundred soldiers it has posted at the airport. According to Reuters, the Taliban have asked Turkey for technical help in running the airport after the departure of foreign forces, but has said the country cannot have any military presence.
The White House says the airlift by western forces has flown out 82,300 Afghans, Americans and others on a mix of US, international and private flights.
Refugee groups are describing a different picture to the Biden administration when it comes to many Afghans: a disorganised, barely-there US evacuation effort that leaves the most desperate to risk beatings and death at Taliban checkpoints. Some Afghans reported being turned away from the Kabul airport by American forces controlling the gates, despite having approval for flights.
“We still have 1,200 Afghans with visas that are outside the airport and haven’t got in,” said James Miervaldis with No One Left Behind, one of dozens of veterans groups working to get out Afghans who worked with the US military during America’s nearly 20 years of combat in the country. “We’re waiting to hear from the US. government and haven’t heard yet.”
Marina LeGree of Ascend, a US-based nonprofit that worked to develop fitness and leadership in Afghan girls and young women, described getting calls from US officials telling the group’s interns and staffers to go to the airport for evacuation flights, only to have them turned away by American forces keeping gates closed against the throngs outside.
“It’s heartbreaking to see my government fail so badly,” said LeGree, the group’s American director, who is in Italy but in close contact with those in Kabul.