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Taliban ready to take over Kabul airport as US pushes to wrap up evacuations

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Taliban militants walk at the main entrance gate of Kabul airport in Kabul on August 28, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The Taliban and US forces are aiming for a swift handover of the Kabul airport to the militants who are prepared to take charge of the strategic facility, a Taliban official said.

"We are waiting for the final nod from the Americans to secure full control over the Kabul airport as both sides aim for a swift handover," the Taliban official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Sunday.

The official added that the militants, who seized control of the capital less than a fortnight ago after a lightning advance against the Western-backed Afghan government, had a team of technical experts and highly qualified engineers ready to take over the airport.

The Taliban said a day earlier that the group would “very soon” take control of the Kabul airport and announce a full cabinet in the coming days after the United States completed its withdrawal from the war-torn country.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group had appointed governors and police chiefs in all but one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and would act to tackle the economic problems.

Mujahid did not specify the exact timing of the cabinet formation, but later said the makeup of the new cabinet would be cleared “in one or two weeks.”

He stressed that the economic problems being experienced by Afghans would be eased once the new government was in place.

United Nations officials have warned that Afghanistan faces a humanitarian catastrophe following decades of conflict, with large parts of the country suffering from extreme drought conditions.

The Taliban are poised to run Afghanistan again 20 years after they were removed from power by American forces following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The militants intensified their offensive and rapidly overran major Afghan cities in recent weeks, as the US-led foreign forces enforced what has been criticized as a hasty and ill-planned withdrawal. The Taliban laid siege to Kabul on August 15, forcing the then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country on the same day.

Since then, Kabul’s airport hash been the scene of chaos and sporadic violence, with panicked Afghan and foreign nationals desperately trying to catch evacuation flights out of the country, prompting officials there to enforce restrictions.

US in final phase of evacuations from Kabul

Separately on Sunday, a Western security official in Kabul said US forces are in the final phase of their evacuation from the Afghan capital and just over 1,000 civilians inside the Kabul airport remain to be flown out before troops are fully withdrawn.

The official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that the date and time for the end of the operation was yet to be decided.

“We want to ensure that every foreign civilian and those who are at risk are evacuated today. Forces will start flying out once this process is over,” said the official, who is stationed at the Kabul airport.

US President Joe Biden has said he will stick by his Tuesday deadline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan.

Another US security official said on Saturday that there were fewer than 4,000 troops left at the airport, down from 5,800 at the peak of the chaotic evacuation mission.

The official said crowds at the airport gates had diminished after the US government warned of the possibility of another attack after a suicide bombing killed scores of Afghans and 13 American troops at the airport on Thursday.

The Daesh terrorist group claimed the attack, which was the most lethal to have hit US forces in Afghanistan in a decade.

The US military said a day after the deadly attack that it had carried out a drone strike against Daesh in Nangarhar Province, east of Kabul and bordering Pakistan, killing two members of the Takfiri terrorist group.

The Taliban censured the US drone strike as a “clear attack on Afghan territory” and said two women and a child were wounded in the assault.

US warns of 'specific, credible threat' near Kabul airport

The United States warned Saturday of a "specific, credible threat" near Kabul airport and urged its citizens to leave the area, days after the deadly attack near the facility.

"Due to a specific, credible threat, all US citizens in the vicinity of Kabul airport... should leave the airport area immediately," the US Embassy in Kabul said in a security alert.

The embassy underlined in its alert that the threat was posed to "the South (Airport Circle) gate, the new Ministry of the Interior (gate), and the gate near the Panjshir Petrol station on the northwest side of the airport."

President Biden had warned earlier in the day that his military commanders believed a fresh attack could come "in the next 24-36 hours," calling the situation "extremely dangerous."

Macron says France, Britain to propose Kabul safe zone

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron said France and Britain will submit a resolution to an emergency United Nations meeting to be held Monday on Afghanistan, proposing a safe zone in Kabul to protect people trying to leave the country.

“Our resolution proposal aims to define a safe zone in Kabul, under UN control, which would allow humanitarian operations to continue,” Macron said in an interview with French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche published on Sunday.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is convening a meeting on August 30 on Afghanistan with the UN envoys for Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia.

France is among the countries that have also ended evacuations from the Kabul airport.

Macron said on Saturday that France was holding preliminary discussions with the Taliban about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the possible evacuation of more people from the country.

He said the discussions were underway with the Taliban through Qatar to "protect and repatriate" Afghans at risk since the country’s takeover by the group.

Evacuations are planned jointly with Qatar and may involve "airlift operations," the French president said at a news conference after a summit in Baghdad, adding that France had evacuated 2,834 people since August 17.

Further evacuations from Afghanistan, as Macron said, would be "focused" in order to pull out "men and women whom we have identified and to whom we have given temporary residency permits.”

He also said that the "Taliban's respect for human rights" was a condition for any political engagement for France and its allies.

Final UK plane carrying military leaves Kabul

The UK on Saturday flew out the last of its military personnel from Afghanistan, concluding its pullout while leaving hundreds of Afghans eligible for resettlement behind.

“The final flight carrying UK Armed Forces personnel has left Kabul,” the British Defense Ministry said in a tweet accompanied by photos of drawn and tired-looking soldiers entering a plane.

The UK had earlier in the day dispatched a final plane to wind up its operation to airlift civilians, diplomats and troops ahead of the August 31 deadline agreed with the Taliban for the US troop withdrawal.

General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the UK armed forces, said the evacuation operation had "gone as well as it could do" but admitted it was "heartbreaking" that "we haven't been able to bring everybody out.”

The armed forces chief estimated the number of eligible Afghans who had not been evacuated as "in the high hundreds.”

UK Defense Secretary Wallace earlier estimated that up to 1,100 Afghans eligible for relocation under the UK's scheme "didn't make it.”

Several British nationals waiting outside the Kabul airport were among those killed in the Daesh-claimed bomb attack on Thursday.

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