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UPDATE – Evacuation flights resume at Kabul airport as Biden defends U.S. withdrawal

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Aug 17 (Reuters) – Military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan resumed early on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands of people desperate to flee after the Taliban seized the capital.

The number of civilians at the airport had thinned out, a Western security official at the facility told Reuters, a day after chaotic scenes https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/frantic-scenes-kabul-airport-afghans-try-flee-taliban-2021-08-16 in which U.S. troops fired to disperse crowds and people clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

“Many people who were here yesterday have gone home,” the official said. Reuters witnesses, however, could still hear occasional shots coming from the direction of the airport, while streets elsewhere in the city appeared calm.

U.S. forces took charge of the airport, their only way to fly out of the country, on Sunday, as the militants were winding up a dramatic week of advances across the country with their takeover of the capital without a fight.

Flights were suspended flights for much of Monday, when at least five people were killed, witnesses said, although it was unclear whether they had been shot or crushed in a stampede.

Media reported two people fell to their deaths from the underside of a U.S. military aircraft after it took off, crashing to their deaths on roofs of homes near the airport.

A U.S. official told Reuters U.S. troops had killed two gunmen who had appeared to have fired into the crowd at the airport.

Despite the scenes of panic and confusion in Kabul, U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-says-us-mission-afghanistan-was-never-supposed-be-nation-building-2021-08-16 to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war – the nation’s longest – that he described as costing more than $1 trillion.

But a video on Monday of hundreds of desperate Afghans trying to clamber onto a U.S. military plane as it was about to take-off could haunt the United States, just as a photograph in 1975 of people scrambling to get on a helicopter on the roof of a building in Saigon became emblematic of the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.

Biden insisted he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly in what he called Afghanistan’s civil war or follow through on an agreement to withdraw negotiated by his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”

Facing a barrage of criticism, from even his own diplomats, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/we-could-have-done-more-frustration-grows-washington-over-bidens-kabul-2021-08-16 he blamed the Taliban’s takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army’s unwillingness to fight.

The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s biggest cities in days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence, in many cases after demoralised government forces surrendered despite years of training and equipping by the United States and others.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the hasty pullout of U.S. troops had a “serious negative impact https://www.reuters.com/world/us-secretary-state-discussed-afghanistan-with-top-chinese-russian-diplomats-2021-08-16, ” China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability.

Blinken also spoke on Monday with counterparts in Pakistan, Russia, Britain, the European Union, Turkey and NATO about ensuring regional stability, the State Department said.

U.S. Charge d’Affaires Ross Wilson dismissed in a Twitter message what he called false reports that he had left the country, saying he and staff remained and were helping thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghans.

NEW REGIME

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling” curbs https://www.reuters.com/world/un-chief-urges-taliban-restraint-is-concerned-about-women-girls-2021-08-15 on human rights and violations against women and girls.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said she was “deeply concerned” and called for world leaders to take urgent action. She urged Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to open their country to refugees.

Former Afghan faction commander and prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said he would travel to Doha on Tuesday to meet a Taliban delegation, accompanied by former President Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister and peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah, Al Jazeera TV reported.

Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Dunya News that the group would improve the security of Kabul and “respect the rights of women and minorities as per Afghan norms and Islamic values”.

Shaheen added the new regime would ensure representation of all ethnicities and that the Taliban were keen to work with the international community to rebuild the country.

Shaheen said on Twitter that the group’s fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.

“Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.

Germany vows to airlift as many people as it can out of Afghanistan

Germany is working to get as many people as possible out of Afghanistan quickly, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday, adding that NATO allies had misjudged the situation when they thought Afghan government forces could hold back the Taliban.

“We want to get as many people out of the country as quickly as possible,” Maas told reporters. He said people who had worked with German military forces in the country, human rights activists and Afghan-German dual nationals will make up the bulk of some 10,000 people Germany wants to lift out of Afghanistan.

Belgium to send military planes to Kabul for evacuation – Belga

Belgium will send military planes to Kabul to evacuate Belgian citizens and Afghan staff, news agency Belga reported on Monday.

Foreign affairs minister Sophie Wilmes told Belgian daily Le Soir that evacuation was being organised for 47 Belgians and more than 20 Afghans who worked for the Belgian embassy, Belgian Defence, the European External Action Service, or the EU’s Directorate General for Economy.

Belgium will send three military transportation planes, one Airbus 400M and two Lockheed C-130, Le Soir reported.

Turkey evacuates 324 people from Afghanistan amid turmoil

Turkey on Monday evacuated 324 people from Kabul on a Turkish Airlines flight, state broadcaster TRT Haber said, after the Taliban seized control of the Afghan capital.

Speaking to reporters on arrival at Istanbul, passengers said they had to wait up to three hours on the plane while troops cleared the runway of civilians, adding some had spent the night at the airport.

Thousands of civilians desperate to flee Afghanistan packed Kabul airport on Monday, prompting the U.S. military temporarily to suspend evacuations as the United States came under mounting criticism at home over its pullout. 

Reuters

Photo A handout photo made available by the French Defense Ministry shows an A400M military plane preparing to take off from the Orleans’ air base with soldiers and equipment to participate in the evacuation operations of French nationals at the Kabul airport, in Orleans, France, 16 August 2021. EPA-EFE/HANDOUT