Afghanistan: Evacuation is continuing despite Kabul attack, says PM

  • Published
Media caption,

Johnson: "We always knew this was a moment where there were going to be particular vulnerabilities to terrorism"

The UK will continue its operation to evacuate people from Afghanistan despite the "despicable" attack at the capital's airport, Boris Johnson says.

Speaking after an emergency meeting, the PM pledged the UK would be working "flat out" until "the last moment".

But he also acknowledged the push was nearing its conclusion, with hours remaining.

Two explosions hit Kabul airport on Thursday, killing some 90 people - among them 13 US military personnel.

At least 150 people were also wounded in the attack, which the so-called Islamic State group say it was behind.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said there had been "no reported UK military or UK government casualties".

Figures released by the MoD on Thursday night showed 13,146 individuals had been flown out by the UK so far.

In an address on Thursday night, President Joe Biden also promised to carry on with the evacuation, which is due to end on 31 August.

He said the US would "not forgive" and "not forget" the attack, telling the perpetrators: "We will hunt you down and make you pay."

US commanders have said they are on alert for more attacks by so-called Islamic State, including possible rockets or vehicle-borne bombs targeting Kabul airport.

Analysis

By Damian Grammaticas, BBC political correspondent

In the aftermath of the suicide bombings at the airport, the pace of the emergency airlift from Afghanistan has slowed but it has not halted.

The BBC understands that people who'd already been allowed inside the airport perimeter have continued to be processed, to be boarded on to departing planes.

But sources said the numbers arriving to be processed had decreased considerably as the Taliban were turning back many Afghans, particularly those who did not hold foreign passports or visas.

Boris Johnson said the UK was "coming towards the very end" of its operation and suggested "the overwhelming majority of those eligible" had now been flown out.

But there remain many clamouring not to be left behind, including interpreters who had worked for the British military, security guards from the UK embassy, Afghan soldiers trained by British forces, those who worked with international organisations and academics.

Thursday's twin blasts took place outside the Abbey Gate - where US and British forces have been stationed to help with evacuations - and at a nearby hotel, following warnings there could be terrorist incidents in the area.

Speaking after chairing an emergency Cobra meeting, the PM described the blasts - reportedly carried out by suicide bombers - as "barbaric".

He said: "I want to stress that this threat of a terrorist attack is one of the constraints that we've been operating under... in the big extraction that's been going on, and we've been ready for it, we've been prepared for it.

"And I want to stress that we're going to continue with that operation - and we're now coming towards the end of it, to the very end of it, in any event.

"But, clearly, what this attack shows is the importance of continuing that work in as fast and as efficient a manner as possible in the hours that remain to us, and that's what we're going to do."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The total number of casualties remains unconfirmed

Continuing, Mr Johnson said the Foreign Office, Home Office and Border Force teams were "going to work flat out" to get people through "as fast as they can".

He added: "We're going to keep going up until the last moment."

The US has set the deadline of the end of the month for the withdrawal of its troops, with President Biden rejecting calls from Mr Johnson and other allies for an extension.

In the past 12 hours, some countries including Canada, Germany and Australia have announced that they have ended their evacuation operations.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has offered condolences to the families of the civilians who were killed or injured, saying the US troops who were killed and harmed "paid the ultimate sacrifice while helping others reach safety".

"The UK and US remain resolute in our mission to get as many people out as possible. It is testament to the remarkable courage of our personnel that they continue to do so while under fire," he said.

'Owe a debt'

A statement from the MoD said: "Our primary concern remains the safety of our personnel, British citizens and the citizens of Afghanistan. We are in close contact with our US and other NATO allies at an operational level on the immediate response to this incident."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the attack "devastating", and said his thoughts were with "all those killed and wounded, serving personnel supporting the evacuations and all those desperately trying to leave".

He added: "The bravery of the troops at the airport will always outweigh the cowardice of those who wish to harm us."

Media caption,

Earlier, Boris Johnson said the UK had rescued the "overwhelming majority" of people to whom it owes a debt

Kabul airport is currently being defended and run by the US, which has 5,800 troops on the ground - with the help of more than 1,000 UK troops.

Armed Forces minister James Heappey declined to give a date for the last UK evacuation flights, but said it was likely that UK and other foreign troops would have to leave before the last American airlifts.

However, Mr Johnson has insisted the US deadline will not mark the end of the UK's efforts to help people wishing to flee the Taliban-controlled country.

He said on Thursday that the current airlifts were just the "first phase".

"Even beyond the US deadline of 31 of this month, we hope to be able to continue to say to people, well you can come out," he said.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Crowds of people have been waiting outside Kabul airport in recent days

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