Rockets fired at American forces on eve of Afghanistan exit
US says it is probing reports of civilian casualties, including children, in drone strike in Kabul.
Anti-missile defences intercepted rockets fired at Kabul’s airport on Monday, as the US’s 20-year war in Afghanistan entered its final hours, with the last Americans seeking to be evacuated and the US military preparing to end its airlift and depart the Taliban-controlled capital.
Two US officials said the “core” diplomatic staff withdrew by Monday morning. They did not say whether this included top envoy Ross Wilson, expected to be among the last to leave before the final troops themselves.
A US official said initial reports did not indicate any American casualties from as many as five missiles fired on the airport. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks. The rockets followed a massive suicide bombing outside the teeming airport gates on Thursday, which killed scores of Afghans and 13 US troops.
Of the five rockets fired at the airport on Monday, three missed the target, one was shot down by US defence systems, and a fifth landed on the airport compound causing little damage and no injuries.
The US also said it was investigating widespread reports that a number of civilians, possibly nine members of the same family including several children, were killed as it carried out a drone strike on Sunday to target a suicide bomber planning to strike the airport.
“We are aware, reports of civilian casualties and we take these reports very seriously, and we are continuing to assess the situation,” Major General Hank Taylor said at the Pentagon’s briefing amid criticism over the civilian casualties.
The threat of more attacks against Kabul airport remained acute, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.
Kirby said the evacuation operation at the airport, currently controlled by thousands of US troops, is on high alert after the Islamic State-Khorasan launched five rockets.
“We’re in a particularly dangerous time right now,” Kirby told reporters. “The threat stream is still real, it’s still active, and in many cases it’s still specific.”
US troops, whose numbers grew to 5,800 after the evacuation operation began on August 14, were already departing ahead of the August 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden to fully exit the country, now in the hands of the Taliban that US forces fought for two decades.
Taylor said more than 122,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul since July, including 5,400 Americans. He said it will continue to be possible to evacuate US citizens still in Afghanistan to the last moment.
“The mission of the evacuation operation was to help as many people as possible leave Afghanistan,” he said.
Tuesday’s deadline for all troops to leave was ordered by Biden, fulfilling an agreement reached with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump to end Washington’s longest war.
The Taliban will take full control of Kabul airport after the American withdrawal on Tuesday, Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network cited an unidentified Taliban member as saying.
“This is the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission these last couple of days,” said America’s top diplomat, secretary of state Antony Blinken.
The White House said that about 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul over the prior 24 hours aboard 26 US military flights and two allied flights.
In a statement, the US Central Command said it was looking into the reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by secondary explosions in the drone strike. An Afghan official said three children were killed in the strike.
It was the second airstrike in recent days the US has conducted against the militant group. The Pentagon said a US drone mission in eastern Afghanistan killed two members of IS’ Afghanistan affiliate early Saturday local time in retaliation for the airport bombing.
The White House has rescheduled Biden’s meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, from Monday to Wednesday as the US pullout from Afghanistan enters its tense final hours.