Suspected suicide bombers struck the crowded gates of Kabul airport with at least two explosions on Thursday, causing a bloodbath among desperate civilians hoping to flee and casting the final days of the Western airlift of its allies into chaos.
A Taliban official said at least 13 people including children had been killed and 52 wounded, while witnesses spoke of many more bodies. A surgical hospital run by an Italian charity said it was treating more than 60 wounded. The Pentagon said U.S. personnel were among those hurt.
Video images uploaded to the internet by an Afghan journalist showed a pile of bloodsoaked bodies in a street surrounded by debris. The man filming it was wailing.
The explosion took place amid the crowds outside the airport who have been massing in hope of escaping in an airlift which the United States says will end by Tuesday, following the swift capture of the country by the Taliban.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, but U.S. officials pointed the finger at Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, ISIS-Khorosan, which has emerged as enemies of both the West and of the Taliban.
Mohammad Tawfiq, a resident of the Yaka Toot area adjacent to military section of the airport, told Reuters that a canal near the airport was filled with the bodies of the dead and wounded.
A witness who gave his name as Jamshed, said he had gone to the airport in the hope of getting a visa to reach the United States.
“There was a very strong and powerful suicide attack, in the middle of the people. Many were killed, including Americans, many were killed and many injured,” he said.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on Twitter: “We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of U.S. and civilian casualties. We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate.”
Taliban official Suhail Shaheen said: “I confirm two explosions in the assembly of people in the area managed by U.S. forces have occurred. Initial reports say 13 persons have been killed and 52 wounded.
“We strongly condemn this gruesome incident and will take every step to bring the culprits to justice.”
The Taliban did not identify the attackers, but a spokesman described them as “evil circles” who would be suppressed once the foreign troops leave.
Washington and its allies had been urging civilians to stay away from the airport on Thursday, citing the threat of an Islamic State suicide attack.
Western countries have evacuated nearly 100,000 people, mostly Afghans who helped them, in the past 12 days. But they acknowledge that many thousands more will be left behind following President Joe Biden’s order to pull out all troops by Aug 31.
The last few days of the airlift will mostly be used to withdraw the remaining troops, meaning the mass rescue of civilians could be in its final days or even hours. Canada and some European countries have already shut their airlifts down.
Several U.S. officials said the blast appeared to be a suicide attack.
A Taliban official said its guards securing the airport were among the wounded.
“Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said a Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity before the reports of the blasts.
Allied countries that fought alongside U.S. forces for 20 years in Afghanistan have been wrapping up their evacuations while publicly lamenting Washington’s haste in pulling out.
“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defence staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters, as Canada announced it could no longer continue its airlift, having pulled out 3,700 Canadians and Afghans.
Norway said it could not evacuate anyone else as the entrances to the airport were shut.
Biden ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban negotiated by his predecessor Donald Trump. He spurned calls this week from European allies for more time.
The abrupt collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan caught U.S. officials by surprise and risks reversing gains, especially in the rights of women and girls, millions of whom have been going to school and work, once forbidden under the Taliban.
Biden has defended the decision to leave, saying U.S. forces could not stay indefinitely. But his critics say the U.S. force, which once numbered more than 100,000, had been reduced in recent years to just a few thousand troops, no longer involved in fighting on the ground and mainly confined to an air base. It was a fraction of the size of U.S. military contingents that have stayed in places such as Korea for decades.
Violence from Islamic State creates a headache for the Taliban who have promised that their victory will bring peace to Afghanistan at last. Fighters claiming allegiance to Islamic State began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and have established a reputation for extreme brutality.
Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.
The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once foreign troops leave and commercial flights resume.
The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The Taliban have said they will respect human rights in line with Islamic law and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.