A panicked crush of people trying to enter Kabul’s international airport killed seven Afghan civilians in the crowds, the British military said Sunday, showing the danger still posed to those trying to flee the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
The deaths come as a group of fighters opposing the Taliban’s rule battle the insurgents in the mountains and valleys to the north of Kabul, capturing several rural districts. While details of the fighting remain unclear, it marks the first organized resistance to rise up against the Taliban since they blitzed across the country in under a week to seize the majority of the country and its capital. The Taliban deployed fighters Sunday to launch a possible offensive there.
Kabul’s airport, now one of the few ways out of the country for the millions in the city, has seen days of chaos since the Taliban entered the capital on Aug. 15. Thousands rushed the airport last Monday in chaos that saw the U.S. try to clear off the runway with low-flying attack helicopters. Several Afghans plunged to their deaths while hanging off the side of a U.S. military cargo plane, some of the seven killed that day alone.
In chaotic scenes Saturday, British and Western troops in full combat gear tried to control crowds big enough to be seen in satellite photos pressing into the airport. They carried away some who were sweating and pale. With temperatures reaching 34 degree Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), the soldiers sprayed water from a hose on those gathered or gave them bottled water to pour over their heads.
The British military on Sunday acknowledged the seven deaths of civilians in the crowds. There have been other stampedes and crushing injuries in the crowds, especially as Taliban fighters fire into the air to drive away those desperate to get on any flight out of the country.
“Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether those killed had been physically crushed, suffocated or suffered a fatal heart attack in the crowds. Soldiers covered several corpses in white clothes to hide them from view. Other troops stood atop concrete barriers or shipping containers, trying to calm the crowd. Gunshots occasionally rang out.
The chaos at Kabul airport comes as a new, perceived threat from the Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan has seen U.S. military planes do rapid, diving combat landings at the airport. Other aircraft have shot off flares on takeoff, an effort to confuse possible heat-seeking missiles targeting the planes.
Amir Khan Motaqi, chief of the Taliban’s guidance council, criticized America over the situation at the airport in an audio clip posted online Sunday. He described the U.S.’s actions as “tyranny” — even as it is Taliban fighters who have beaten and shot at those trying to access the airport over the last week.
“All Afghanistan is secure, but the airport which is managed by the Americans has anarchy,” he said. “The U.S. should not defame itself, should not embarrass itself to the world and should not give this mentality to our people that (the Taliban) are a kind of enemy.”
Speaking to an Iranian state television channel late Saturday night in a video call, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem also blamed the deaths at the airport on the Americans in what quickly became a combative interview.
“The Americans announced that we would take you to America with us and people gathered at Kabul airport,” Naeem said. “If it was announced right now in any country in the world, would people not go?”
The host on Iranian state TV, which long has criticized America since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, quickly said: “It won’t happen in Iran.”
Naeem responded: “Be sure this will happen anywhere.”
Meanwhile, fighting has erupted in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Kabul. Forces organizing under the banner of the “People’s Uprising” have taken three districts around the Andarab Valley, nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains near Panjshir, the only province still not under Taliban control.
On Sunday, the Taliban published video online showing fighters, including their elite special forces, preparing to head there, possibly to fight the “People’s Uprising” forces. Four officials said the Taliban had gone into the Keshnabad area of Andarab Valley to abduct the children of those opposing them.
Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa, the former head of intelligence in Balkh province, and Abdul Ahmad Dadgar, another leader in the uprising, alleged that Taliban fighters had attacked people’s homes and burned them while taking children. Two other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also alleged the Taliban seized fighters’ children. The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the fighting.
Later on Sunday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the initial stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, asking for 18 aircraft from American carriers to assist in transporting Afghan refugees once they are evacuated from their country by military aircraft. Under the voluntary program, civilian airlines add to military aircraft capability during a crisis related to national defense. That program was born in the wake of the Berlin airlift.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s top political leader has arrived in Kabul for talks on forming a new government. The presence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who returned to Kandahar earlier this week from Qatar, was confirmed by a Taliban official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media.
Afghan officials familiar with talks held in the capital say the Taliban have said they will not make announcements on their government until the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal passes.