Taleban fighters ensure orderly evacuations at Kabul airport after blast

Afghans hoping to leave the country walk to the main entrance gate of Kabul airport, on Aug 28, 2021.
Afghans hoping to leave the country walk to the main entrance gate of Kabul airport, on Aug 28, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

KABUL (AFP) - Order replaced chaos at Kabul airport Saturday (Aug 28) with Taleban fighters escorting a steady stream of Afghans from buses to the main passenger terminal, handing them over to US troops for evacuation.

Gone are the tens of thousands clamouring to get inside the airport grounds in the hope of getting aboard a flight before Aug 31, when the US-led evacuation ends and the last foreign troops depart.

The deadly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide blast at a secondary entrance on Thursday likely scared away many looking for a way to escape the return to power of the hardline Islamists, but the Taleban have also sealed off all roads leading to the airport and are now only letting sanctioned buses pass.

"We have lists from the Americans... if your name is on the list, you can come through," one Taleban official told AFP near the civilian passenger terminal of Hamid Karzai International Airport. "If your name isn't here, then you cannot come through."

On Saturday, AFP saw more than a dozen small- and medium-sized buses disgorge tense-looking passengers at the main gate of the airport.

It was unclear who had organised the buses - or where they had come from - and the Taleban officials and guards present would not allow the passengers to be interviewed.

The men and women were separated and made to walk on opposite sides of the road, but both groups carried infants or led children by the hand - some oblivious to their ordeal and skipping as if on an adventure.

Everyone was stripped of their luggage apart from what they could keep in a plastic bag - but a Taleban official was quick to offer an explanation.

"Because of the blast, the Americans won't let them take anything," he said.

"We tell them to take the money and the gold in their pockets. If they leave clothes we will give to other people."

Heavily armed Taleban fighters were seen throughout the grounds and auxiliary buildings of the airport complex, while US marines peered at them from the passenger terminal roof.

After a 20-year war, the foes were within open sight of each other, separated by just 30 metres, and holding fire.

Also in view of the American troops were Badri special forces in humvees gifted to the Afghan defence forces, but now flying the white Taleban flag.

The US and other nations that had a military stake in Afghanistan planned for years to offer sanctuary to those who helped their troops - some more generously than others.

But plans for a staggered and orderly relocation were thrown into disarray by the Taleban's stunningly swift return to power.

Until Thursday's ISIS attack, tens of thousands of people had besieged the airport since Aug 15, when the Taleban rolled into Kabul having swept through the rest of the country in a lightning offensive.

The Taleban insist there will be no recriminations for those who helped foreign forces, but many Afghans - particularly the country's educated middle class - fear a return to the fundamentalist Islamist rule that effectively barred women from public life and punished crime with public floggings and executions.

The Pentagon says more than 110,000 Afghans and foreigners have been evacuated since Aug 14 - most to start a new life abroad with nothing more than their skills and what they can carry in a plastic bag.

An AFP photographer saw a journalist friend Saturday among those brought by bus for evacuation - he had worked for the US-led coalition force's media department and was considered at risk of Taleban retribution.

They embraced briefly before parting ways.

"Good luck," they told each other - one staying behind, and the other on his way to a new life.