US troops step up evacuations out of Kabul but Taliban warns over ‘red line’

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The US military has reported its biggest day of airlifts out of Afghanistan so far, but deadly violence that has blocked many desperate evacuees from entering Kabul’s airport persisted and the Taliban signalled they might soon seek to shut down the evacuation.

Twenty-eight US military flights ferried about 10,400 people to safety out of Taliban-held Afghanistan over the 24 hours that ended early on Monday morning, a White House official said.

The count was more than twice the 3,900 flown out in the previous 24 hours on US military planes.

US President Joe Biden said on Sunday that he would not rule out extending the evacuation beyond August 31, the date he had set for completing the withdrawal of troops and formally ending the 19-year US combat role in Afghanistan.

Troops help the evacuation out of Kabul
Troops help the evacuation out of Kabul (MoD/PA)

But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, in an interview with Sky News, said that August 31 is a “red line” the US must not cross, and that extending the American presence would “provoke a reaction”.

Since the Taliban seized the capital on August 15, completing a stunning rout of the American-backed Afghan government and military, the US has been carrying out the evacuation in co-ordination with the Taliban, who have held off on attacking under a 2020 withdrawal deal with the Trump administration.

Monday’s warning signalled the Taliban could insist on shutting down airlifts out of Kabul airport in just over a week.

Satellite image showing vehicles trying to reach the civilian side of Kabul International Airport
Satellite image showing vehicles trying to reach the civilian side of Kabul International Airport (FDuckett/AP)

Speaking on Sunday, a week after the Taliban completed their victory by capturing Kabul, Mr Biden defended his decision to end the war and insisted that getting all Americans out of the country would have been difficult in the best of circumstances at any other time.

Critics have said he waited too long to begin organising an evacuation before the fear and panic set off by the government’s sudden collapse.

Mr Biden said military discussions are under way on potentially extending the airlift beyond August 31. “Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are discussions,” he said, suggesting the possibility that the Taliban will be consulted.

Taliban fighters at a checkpoint
Taliban fighters at a checkpoint (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Mr Biden also said US forces have improved access to the airport for Americans and others seeking to get on flights. He suggested that the perimeter had been extended, widening a “safe zone”.

But gunfire just outside the airport killed at least one Afghan soldier early on Monday, German officials said.

It was the latest in days of often-lethal turmoil outside the airport. People coming in hopes of escaping Taliban rule face sporadic gunfire, beatings by the militants, and crowds that have trampled many.

Mr Biden and his senior aides have repeatedly cited their concern that extremist groups in Afghanistan will attempt to exploit the chaos around the airport.

The Biden administration has given no firm estimate of the number of Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan. Some have put the total between 10,000 and 15.000.

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