Two suicide bombs and a gunman struck one of the main entrances to Kabul’s international airport on Thursday, killing civilians and at least 12 US service personnel, hours after western intelligence agencies warned of an imminent and “very credible” terrorist threat.
US and other western officials blamed the Afghan branch of Islamic State and voiced concern over fresh attacks at the airport, while the UK warned aircraft to avoid Afghan airspace under 25,000 feet because of the threat of surface to air missiles.
The Taliban initially said 13 people died in the blasts, but reports later suggested the toll was much higher, with a senior health official quoted by the BBC suggesting as many as 60 had been killed, with many more injured. US officials said 11 marines and a navy medic had died. The toll is expected to rise.
A Pentagon official described a “complex attack” that appeared to have involved one suicide bombing close to the Abbey gate entrance to the airfield with the second occurring near the Baron hotel, which is where the British embassy is based.
The explosion took place amid frantic crowds of Afghans outside the airport, thousands of whom have gathered daily in the hope of escaping via the chaotic airlift, which the US says will be concluded by Tuesday at the latest.
Many of those near the Baron hotel were hoping to come to the UK, queueing in some cases for days in an open sewer near the hotel, or battling through the crowds because they been called forward to be airlifted out.
Despite the carnage, the UK insisted its final evacuation flights would continue out of Kabul. “I want to stress that we are going to continue with our operation,” said the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, after holding an emergency Cobra meeting in response to the attack.
Images shared on social media showed bloodied casualties being ferried from the scene of the blast, some of them in wheelbarrows, to waiting ambulances.
“We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US and civilian casualties,” tweeted John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. “We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron hotel, a short distance from Abbey gate.”
According to a Taliban spokesperson, the victims of the attack included children. One emergency hospital in Kabul said it had received 30 wounded with six dying on the way to hospital.
British and Turkish military sources also confirmed the attack had involved two blasts, with US officials later saying they believed Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan – known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an enemy of both the west and Taliban – was responsible.
Johnson was asked if the UK was in effect encouraging terror attacks by continuing to process evacuation claims. But the prime minister said the final stages of the airlift were going to be risky: “We always knew that this was a moment where, of course there were going to be particular vulnerabilities to terrorism.” No British soldiers or officials were killed or injured in the attack.
One eyewitness described the moment of the blast to the New York Times. “The crowd was packed and people were pushing,” said Barat. “I tripped and that’s when the explosion happened. I think four or five soldiers were hit. We fell to the ground and the foreign soldiers started shooting. There were bodies everywhere, people were running.”
“Bodies, flesh and people were thrown into a canal nearby,” said Milad, who was also at the scene of the first blast. When people heard the explosion there was total panic.”
The US president, Joe Biden, cancelled an Oval Office meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and instead huddled with senior defence and foreign policy staff in the White House situation room.
The warning of an attack had been delivered by several countries including the UK. Afghans gathering to try to gain access to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport were told to leave immediately and move to a safe place, even as the evacuation appeared to be rapidly coming to an end.
Reacting to the news the French president, who is visiting Ireland, said the security situation had profoundly deteriorated and that the French ambassador would not remain. “We are facing an extremely tense situation,” Emmanuel Macron told a joint news conference with the Irish prime minister, Micheál Martin.
James Heappey, the UK armed forces minister, had earlier said Afghans trying to flee for the UK should not head to the airport. In an unusually detailed warning, he said there was “very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack”.
The warnings over the previous 24 hours were specific. “Those at the Abbey gate, east gate or north gate now should leave immediately,” the US state department said, citing unspecified “security threats”. It advised people to approach only if “you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so”.
A Taliban official told Turkish TV the attack was an act of terrorism that should be condemned by the whole world and added the presence of foreign forces in the country was to blame.
“As soon as the airport situation is figured out and the foreign forces leave, we will not have such attacks any more. It is because of the presence of foreign forces that such attacks take place,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, told Turkey’s Habertürk TV.
Several countries issued statements saying they were ending their involvement in the airlift on Thursday, including Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Hungary. All countries will pack up and leave before the US, whose forces currently control the airport; its military is expected to take two to three days to complete the final withdrawal.
France said its flights would end on Friday. The prime minister, Jean Castex, told the French broadcaster RTL: “From tomorrow evening onwards, we are not able to evacuate people from the Kabul airport.”
Earlier the Guardian revealed that the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, had said some people were better off trying to escape via a land border to a neighbouring third country, and the Foreign Office changed its advice to urge people near Kabul airport to “move away to a safe location” due to the “ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack”.
However, crowds of people were still queueing at the airport in the hope of making it on to one of the last remaining evacuation flights by the UK and other Nato countries. According to estimates in the US media on Thursday, about 250,000 Afghans with links to the US were in danger of being left under Taliban rule.
“I will wait until the airport is closed,” said a man who identified himself only as Hamid, adding he was a manager in a state ministry until 11 days ago when the Taliban rolled into Kabul.
“They will give our jobs to their relatives. How will I support my family?” he said, accompanied by his wife, ageing father-in-law and two young children.