As bombing death toll skyrockets, desperate Afghans seek a way out


Hundreds of Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban continued to crowd Kabul airport on Friday, even after one of the deadliest bombings in the country’s history, as the death toll in the previous day’s explosion was approaching 200 with hundreds more injured, keeping the city’s hospitals very busy all day.

The crowd size at the airport had, however, sharply reduced, with fear reducing the number to hundreds from thousands of days before. The suicide bombing ravaged crowds Thursday afternoon, piling up corpses in an adjacent sewer channel. Health officials said at least 170 civilians were killed, and possibly more.

The attack also killed 13 U.S. service members, and one of the first to be identified was Rylee McCollum, 20, a Marine who had been on his first overseas deployment, according to his father. He was one of 10 Marines, two soldiers and a Navy medic killed in the attack, defense officials said.

On Friday, the Pentagon changed its earlier statement that there may have been two suicide bombings at the airport by ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, saying instead that they were ‘just one. The explosion struck right next to the airport’s Abbey Gate, at a security choke point that gathered a huge crowd for which US troops were checking entry.

It wasn’t just fear that reduced the crowds at the airport on Friday, which had been a steady mass since the Taliban took power almost two weeks ago. Taliban fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles drove people away from the airport gates, guarding the checkpoints with trucks and at least one Humvee.

Flights to evacuate those already present at the airport resumed shortly after the bombing. But the airport itself was largely locked down on Friday.

US and Taliban officials have consulted for days about security around the airport and sometimes cooperate to help groups get in. But the bombing led to changes in the Taliban’s methods, in particular, on Friday. At its southern and eastern gates, Taliban gunmen said almost no one was allowed to approach and all front doors were closed. Reports of any new entry to the airport were sparse and unconfirmed.

Additionally, State Department officials have warned people to stay away from the airport and take shelter in place due to new terrorist threats.

Mr McCollum’s unit, one of the Marines killed in the blast, had deployed from Jordan to Afghanistan to provide security and assist with evacuations, his father, Jim McCollum, said in a telephone interview. Friday. He said his son was guarding a checkpoint when the explosion passed through the main gate of the airport.

The US government has said more than 100,000 people have been evacuated so far. And a US military official said flights to begin the final evacuation of US military personnel and equipment began on Friday evening.

Despite the risk and obstacles at the airport, citizens continued to flock to what many see as the last chance to get out.

“People always risk their lives and go to the airport to leave the country,” said a female journalist in Kabul. “It’s the only hope.

Another Kabul resident who was at the airport on Thursday and lost a friend in the bombing vowed to return on Friday. “I don’t want to be killed in this cursed country,” he said. “I don’t want to live here anymore. I hate this country. I hate all these murders.

A government employee who lives in the Macroyan neighborhood of central Kabul said he was not surprised people always congregate at the airport gates.

“Better to get killed trying to leave than to stay here,” he said. “People are trying to leave the country at all costs. “

In much of Kabul, the streets were quiet and largely deserted on Friday.

“There were a lot of people in this area before the collapse, but now it’s like a ghost town,” the government employee said of central Kabul. “You can’t find people. Everyone is afraid to leave their home.

In the aftermath of the attack and nearly two weeks after taking control of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban continued to reveal little about their intentions as to what form their government would take.

Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan finance minister, spoke by phone on Friday about his meetings with Taliban officials and his daily walk to his office in downtown Kabul. He is trying to push the Taliban towards what he calls a more “inclusive” government.

Both exercises – the walk and the elbow – turn out to be challenges. In the normally bustling and noisy neighborhood of Shahr-e Naw, once bustling with street vendors and jostling pedestrians, an unsettling silence now reigns. And so far his encounters with the Taliban have not yielded the results he hoped for.

“It’s terribly quiet,” he said from Kabul on Friday. “It’s really calm. You don’t see a lot of women there. Not even close to the usual number. And the market looks depressed. You don’t see people shopping. There are juice vendors in Shahr-e Naw, but few people drink the juice.

Dr Zakhilwal, an economist who sharply criticized the government of President Ashraf Ghani in the days leading up to its fall, said the country was “in a very depressed economic situation”. A severe shortage of liquidity has caused prices to skyrocket. Few ATMs work.

So far, the worst fears about the Taliban do not appear to have come true, Dr Zakhilwal said. “Overall, their treatment of the population is not as bad as expected,” he said. “They are not very visible. You don’t see a strong presence of them in the city.

But “mental security is not there,” he said.

The former boss of Dr Zakhilwal, former President Hamid Karzai, is among ex-Afghan officials meeting with representatives of the Taliban. While former officials hope the Taliban will include at least some of them in their government, signs so far are not encouraging.

“Now that they have taken it all, they might be tempted not to go for the kind of inclusive government that would be the result of a political settlement,” said Dr Zakhilwal.

The few government appointments made so far suggest the Taliban are more interested in filling positions within their ranks rather than appointing “professionals,” he said, noting the Taliban’s choice to lead on an interim basis. the central bank: Hajji Mohammad Idris, member of the movement. News reports have indicated that Mr. Idris has no formal financial training.

According to other reports, the Taliban have raided the homes of former government officials in Kabul.

“This is the eighth time that the Taliban have come to my home in Kabul, searched for me and took my private vehicle, and directly threatened my children and my children,” said Halim Fidai, a former official who served as an adviser. the president and a governor of the eastern province of Khost, said in a tweet.

Ahmadullah Waseq, deputy to the Taliban cultural committee, dismissed reports that the Taliban had carried out house-to-house searches in the capital.

With four days before the August 31 deadline for the US withdrawal, a date Mr Biden said he intended to maintain despite domestic and international pressure for an extension, evacuations were on the way. point of being well short of providing an exit. for anyone who wants to go.

This left the Afghans scrambling to find a way out of the country.

In the southwest, thousands of people are trying to flee to Pakistan, gathering daily near the Spin Boldak-Chaman border post, the only one reserved for refugees. In the west, several thousand people a day are also entering Iran, UN officials said.

Before the Taliban takeover, about 4,000-8,000 people crossed the border from Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, to Chaman, Pakistan on a typical day. Since the Taliban seized Kabul, the number has tripled, according to Pakistani officials and tribal leaders.

An official with the Pakistani ministry responsible for overseeing refugees said the government only allowed crossings for Pakistani citizens, Afghans seeking medical treatment and people with proof of a right of refuge.

Officials in the country have repeatedly stated that they will not allow new refugees to enter Pakistani cities. Instead, the government is considering establishing refugee camps near the border within Afghanistan.

Nearly three million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, driven out by the Soviet Union‘s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the civil wars that followed.

Sharif Hassan, Daniel Victor, Zia ur-Rehman, Jim Huylebroek, Megan Specia, Fahim Abed, Jack Healy and Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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