Kabul (Reuters) – 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. 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.
“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,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on Twitter.
The explosion took place amid crowds outside the airport, where desperate Afghans 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 Washington and its allies had been urging civilians to stay away from the airport on Thursday because of a threat of a suicide attack by Islamic State militants, enemies of both the West and the Taliban.
Western countries have evacuated nearly 100,000 people, mostly Afghans who helped them, in the past 12 days. But they acknowledge that thousands more will be left behind following President Joe Biden’s order to pull out all troops by Aug 31.
Several U.S. officials said the blast appeared to be a suicide attack. A witness in Kabul saw many wounded men, women and children waiting for treatment outside a hospital.
The Taliban official said many Taliban guards, who are 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.
The airlift for civilians is in its final days, with Washington saying it will use the last two days mainly to pull out its own troops. Allies that fought alongside U.S. forces for 20 years in Afghanistan have been wrapping up their own evacuations while publicly lamenting Washington’s haste in pulling out.
Canadian forces halted their evacuations of around 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens on Thursday, saying they had stayed as long as they could.
“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defence staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters.
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 from European allies for more time.
Fighters claiming allegiance to Islamic State began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014. They established a reputation for extreme brutality as they fought the Taliban both for ideological reasons and for control of local smuggling and narcotics routes, according to Western intelligence services.
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.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.
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. Women were barred from school or work. 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.