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Rockets hit neighborhood near Kabul airport as U.S. airlift enters final 48 hours

Satellite image of Kabul's international airport
Kabul’s international airport, as seen via satellite on Saturday.
(Planet Labs Inc.)

Islamic State militants fired a volley of rockets at Kabul’s rapidly emptying international airport on Monday, with just hours left before a deadline for U.S. forces to withdraw at the end of America’s longest war.

The Pentagon is tight-lipped about final operations and has not specified when the withdrawal will be completed ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. But spokesman John Kirby told reporters “there is still time” for Americans to join a massive airlift that has allowed more than 116,000 people to leave since the Taliban swept back into power two weeks ago.

All day Monday, U.S. military cargo jets came and went despite the rocket attack, which did not hurt anyone. The Taliban released a video shot from the airport’s grounds, saying the Americans had removed or destroyed most of their equipment and that troop numbers were far lower. “It looks like today will be the last day,” one of the unidentified fighters said.

With the departure of the last of its troops, the U.S. is ending its 20-year war with the Taliban back in power. Many Afghans remain fearful of the Taliban or further instability, and there have been sporadic reports of killings and other abuses in areas under Taliban control despite pledges to restore peace and security.

In the last 24 hours, the American military evacuated about 1,200 people on 26 C-17 flights, while two coalition flights flew out 50 others, the White House said.

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The two-week airlift has brought scenes of desperation and horror. In the early days, people desperate to flee Taliban rule flooded onto the tarmac and some fell to their deaths after clinging to a departing aircraft. On Thursday, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

Joe Biden is meeting with slain troops’ families. He had hoped to be the first president in two decades to avoid losing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The extremist group is far more radical than the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan earlier this month after capturing most of Afghanistan in a matter of days. The two groups have fought each other in the past, and the Taliban has pledged not to harbor terrorist groups.

The Taliban tightened its security cordon around the airfield after the attack, clearing away massive crowds of Afghans who were desperate to flee the country in the waning days of the U.S.-led airlift. Taliban fighters are now stationed along a fence near the main runway.

A crowd quickly gathered Monday around the remains of a four-door sedan used in the rocket attack. The car had what appeared to be six homemade rocket tubes mounted in place of its back seats.

“I was inside the house with my children and other family members. Suddenly there were some blasts,” said Jaiuddin Khan, who lives nearby. “We jumped into the house compound and lay on the ground.”

The terrorist group Islamic State in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, is thought to be responsible for Thursday’s deadly bombing near the airport. Here’s what we know about it.

Some of the rockets landed across town, striking residential apartment blocks, witnesses said. The neighborhood is less than two miles from the airport. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Five rockets targeted the airport, said U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command. A defensive weapon known by the acronym C-RAM — counter-rocket, artillery and mortar system — targeted the rockets in a whirling hail of ammunition, Urban said. The system has a distinct, drill-like sound, which echoed through the city at the time of the attack.

The Islamic State statement, carried by the group’s Amaq media outlet, claimed that the militants fired six rockets.

The White House said President Biden was briefed on the rocket attack.

As the death toll from Thursday’s bombing in Kabul climbs past 180, Afghan families gather for funerals, and many resolve anew to leave.

“The president was informed that operations continue uninterrupted at HKIA, and has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground,” the statement said, using an acronym for Kabul’s airport.

Planes took off roughly every 20 minutes at one point Monday morning. One C-17 landing in the afternoon shot off flares as it approached — a maneuver to protect against heat-seeking missiles and a sign that the U.S. military remains concerned about surface-to-air missiles loose in the country.

Smoke from several fires along the airport’s perimeter could be seen Monday. It wasn’t clear what was ablaze, although U.S. forces typically destroy material and equipment they won’t take with them.

The airport had been one of the few ways out for foreigners and Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover. However, coalition nations have halted their evacuations in recent days, leaving the U.S. military largely alone at the base with some remaining allied Afghan forces providing security.

People fleeing the violence engulfing Afghanistan have arrived in Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

The U.S. State Department released a statement Sunday signed by about 100 countries, as well as NATO and the European Union, saying they had received “assurances” from the Taliban that people with travel documents would still be able to leave the country.

The Taliban has said it will allow normal travel after the U.S. withdrawal is completed Tuesday and it assumes control of the airport. It remains unclear, however, how the militants will run the airport and which commercial carriers will begin flying into the field given the ongoing security concerns there.

Qatar confirmed to the Associated Press on Monday that the Gulf country has been taking part in negotiations about operations at the airport with Afghan and international parties, mainly the U.S. and Turkey. Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, Lolwa al-Khater, said Qatar’s main priority is restoring regular operations while maintaining security at the airport. Qatar is a U.S. ally that has long hosted a Taliban political office.

The Taliban has honored a pledge not to attack Western forces so long as they evacuate by Tuesday, but Islamic State remains a threat.

The U.S. carried out a drone strike Saturday that it said killed two Islamic State members. American officials said a U.S. drone strike on Sunday blew up a vehicle carrying Islamic State suicide bombers who were planning to attack the airport.

Relatives of those killed in Sunday’s strike disputed that account, saying it killed civilians who had nothing to do with the extremist group.

Decades of war and poverty have driven Afghan farmers to grow poppy to earn steady income. The Taliban’s return to power does little to change that.

Najibullah Ismailzada said his brother-in-law, Zemarai Ahmadi, 38, had just arrived home from his job working with a Korean charity. As he drove into the garage, his children came out to greet him, and that’s when the missile struck.

“We lost 10 members of our family,” Ismailzada said, including six children raging in age from 2 to 8. He said another relative, Naser Nejrabi, who was a former soldier in the Afghan army and a former interpreter for the U.S. military in his mid-20s, also was killed, along with two teenagers.

Urban, the military spokesman, acknowledged the reports of civilian casualties.

“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” he said in a statement.

Akhgar reported from Istanbul and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Rahim Faiez in Istanbul, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Samy Magdy in Cairo, Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and Robert Burns and Lou Kesten in Washington contributed to this report.


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