Western nations involved in the Kabul airlift began pulling out of the effort on Thursday, with a number of them citing the acute threat of a “highly lethal” terrorist attack by Islamic State, possibly within hours.
In a warning delivered by several western nations 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.
James Heappey, the UK armed forces minister, said Afghans trying to flee for the UK should not head to the airport owing to the “very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack”.
The warnings 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”.© Photograph: Us Army/Reuters US paratroopers on lookout at Kabul airport on Wednesday. The final American troops are due to depart Afghanistan next Tuesday.
The final US troops will depart by next Tuesday, 31 August, and UK troops are expected to do so slightly earlier.
A number of nations issued statements saying they were ending their involvement in the airlift on Thursday, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Hungary.
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.”
A Dutch government statement said: “The Netherlands has been informed by the United States that it has to depart today and will most likely perform the last flights later today. This is a painful moment because it means that despite all the great efforts of the past period, people who are eligible for evacuation to the Netherlands will be left behind.”
Poland announced the end of its involvement in the largest ever air evacuation. “The evacuation action from Afghanistan ends today,” the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said at a news conference in Warsaw.
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.
Heappey said a group known as Isis-K (Islamic State Khorasan province) were aware of the limited window of time left and would want to strike with what they regarded as a “spectacular” attack that the west would view as “abhorrent”.
“We’re not being overly cautious,” Heappey told the BBC, adding there was a “very, very real threat.”
He said there were 11 evacuation flights planned in the next 24 hours, and the government had to tell people no longer to head for the airport.
The very large number of people still queueing in the hope of securing a seat on a plane out of Kabul were likely to be already fearful of their lives so they had chosen to “take their chances”, Heappey acknowledged, but he said the threat was severe and “we won’t get everybody out”.
Speaking later to LBC, the minister said: “I was given lines today for what might happen if the attack happened while I was doing this media round.
“I don’t think everybody should be surprised by this. Daesh, or Islamic State, are guilty of all sorts of evil. But the opportunism of wanting to target a major international humanitarian mission is just utterly deplorable, but sadly true to form for an organisation as barbarous as Daesh.” AdChoices
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