There were at least two explosions near Kabul’s airport amid a huge evacuation effort from Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Thursday, with civilians and U.S. service members among the casualties.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said one blast occurred near the airport’s Abbey Gate and the other close to the nearby Baron Hotel. Two U.S. officials said at least one of the explosions appeared to be from a suicide bombing.
“We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties,” Kirby tweeted. “We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate.”
A Taliban official said at least 13 people were killed in the blast, including children, and many Taliban guards were wounded.
A U.S. official told Reuters as many as three U.S. service members were among those wounded, and that U.S. casualty numbers were expected to increase, according to initial information. At least one of the U.S. personnel was seriously injured, an official said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul described “a large explosion” and said there had been reports of gunfire.
The explosion came after the United States and allies urged Afghans to leave the area because of a threat by the Islamic State terror group.
A massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before Taliban forces captured Kabul on Aug. 15, capping a swift advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the explosion, according to a White House official. Biden was in a meeting with security officials about the situation in Afghanistan, where the United States is in the final steps of ending its 20-year war, when the explosion was first reported, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The United States has been racing to carry out the airlift before its military is set to fully withdraw from the country on Aug. 31.
In an alert issued on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had advised citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified “security threats.”
A Western diplomat in Kabul said that areas outside the airport gates had been “incredibly crowded” again despite the warnings.
The United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.
The Taliban, whose fighters are guarding the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.
“Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and before the reports of the explosion.
Biden has been briefed on the explosion, according to a White House official. Biden was in a meeting with security officials about the situation in Afghanistan when the explosion was first reported, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Canadian forces halted their evacuations of around 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens on Thursday, saying they had stayed as long as they could before the deadline lapses. U.S. and allied troops also have to plan the logistics of their own withdrawal.
“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defense staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters.
Biden ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time.
Fighters claiming allegiance to ISIS-K first began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 but the ultra-radical Sunni movement soon expanded from the area near the border with Pakistan where it first appeared.
Daesh, as it is widely known in Afghanistan, established a reputation for extreme brutality as it fought the Taliban both for ideological reasons and for control of local smuggling and narcotics routes, according to Western intelligence services.
It also claimed a series of suicide attacks in cities like Kabul, where as well as government and civilian institutions, it particularly attacked targets associated with the Shiite religious minority.
The U.S. military has said it would prioritize evacuating its troops, numbering about 5,200, in the two days before the deadline to leave.
Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.