Gunfire breaks out at airport, Taliban eye Panjshir capture
The airport shooting came as the Taliban sent fighters north of the capital to eliminate pockets of armed resistance to their lightning takeover earlier this month.
A firefight at Kabul’s international airport killed at least one Afghan soldier and injured three others on Monday, officials said, the latest chaos to engulf efforts to evacuate those fleeing the Taliban takeover of the country, a day after seven people died in frantic crowds waiting to leave the country.
The airport shooting came as the Taliban sent fighters north of the capital to eliminate pockets of armed resistance to their lightning takeover earlier this month. The Taliban said they retook three districts seized by opponents the day before and had surrounded Panjshir, the last province that remains out of their control.
Afghanistan’s security forces collapsed in the face of the Taliban advance. Tens of thousands of Afghans have sought to flee the country since, fearing a return to the brutal rule the Taliban imposed the last time they ran Afghanistan. That has led to chaos at the airport in Kabul, the main route out of the country.
Gunfire broke out near an entrance to the airport, where at least seven Afghans died a day earlier in a panicked stampede of thousands of people. The circumstances of the shooting, which occurred around dawn, remained unclear.
The German military tweeted that one member of the Afghan army was killed and three others were wounded by “unknown attackers”. An Italian humanitarian organisation that operates hospitals in Afghanistan said it had treated six patients with bullet wounds from the airport.
Forces loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the anti-Soviet mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, have established themselves in the Panjshir valley, a mountainous area northwest of Kabul which resisted the Taliban before 2001.
Massoud, whose forces include remnants of regular army and special forces units, has called for negotiations to form an inclusive government for Afghanistan but has promised to resist if Taliban forces try to enter the valley. Several Taliban opponents have gathered there, including Amrullah Saleh, the vice president in the toppled government who claims to be the acting president.
Late on Sunday, the Taliban’s Alemarah information service said hundreds of fighters were heading towards Panjshir but there has been no immediate confirmation of any fighting.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the Salang Pass, on the main highway running from southern Afghanistan to the north, was open and enemy forces were blockaded in the Panjshir valley. But his statement suggested that there was no fighting for the moment.
“The Islamic Emirate is trying to resolve the problems peacefully,” Zabihullah said.
The tragic scenes around the Kabul airport have transfixed the world. Afghans poured onto the tarmac last week and some clung to a US military transport plane as it took off, later plunging to their deaths. At least seven people died that day, in addition to the seven killed on Sunday.
The Taliban blame the chaotic evacuation on the US military and say there’s no need for any Afghans to flee. They have pledged to bring peace and security after decades of war and say they won’t seek revenge on those who worked with the US, NATO and the toppled Afghan government.
Addressing a conference of Muslim clerics, Zabihullah urged them to push back against Western “propaganda” about the Taliban and said the US was undermining their rule by sending planes and offering Afghans asylum.
Despite their promises, the Taliban have violently suppressed protests and beat people with batons as they try to control the crowds outside the airport perimeter. There have also been reports in recent days of the Taliban hunting down their former enemies. It’s unclear if Taliban leaders are saying one thing and doing another, or if fighters on the ground are taking matters into their own hands.
As the airlift continues, the US government asked for 18 aircraft from American commercial carriers to assist in transporting Afghan refugees to their final destinations after their initial evacuation. The request fell under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet programme, which was born in the wake of the Berlin airlift and can add to the military’s capabilities during crises.
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 US forces. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to press Biden for an extension.
But Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen, in an interview with Sky News, said August 31 is a “red line” and that extending the American presence would “provoke a reaction”.