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Afghans told to leave Kabul airport over ‘very credible’ Islamic State threat

Families begin to board a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on 23 August 2021. (EPA-EFE / Sgt. Samuel Ruiz / US Marine Corps via DVIDS / HANDOUT)

Aug 26 (Reuters) - The United States and allies urged people to move away from Kabul airport on Thursday, citing the threat of an attack by Islamic State (IS) militants as Western troops hurry to evacuate as many people as possible before an Aug. 31 deadline.

* Western countries warn of IS threat to airport

* Biden briefed on contingency plans for evacuation

* Taliban seek to assure Afghans there is nothing to fear

* U.S. to shift focus to getting last troops out

Pressure to complete the evacuations of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban has intensified, with all U.S. and allied troops due to leave the airport next week.

In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified “security threats”.

In a similar advisory, Britain told people to move away from the airport area. Its armed forces minister, James Heappey, said intelligence about a possible suicide bomb attack by IS militants had become “much firmer”.

“I can’t stress the desperation of the situation enough. The threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal. We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target that is just unimaginable,” Heappey told BBC radio.

A Western diplomat in Kabul said areas outside the airport gates were “incredibly crowded” again despite the warnings.

Australia also issued a warning for people to stay away from the airport while Belgium ended its evacuation operations because of the danger of an attack.

The Dutch government also issued a warning and said it expected to carry out its last evacuation flight on Thursday, leaving behind some who are eligible to travel to the Netherlands.

The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in Kabul and its airport, where a massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been underway since the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15, capping a lightning advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.

‘RISKING LIVES’

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.

While Western troops in the airport worked to move the evacuation as fast as possible, thousands of people still thronged outside, trying to flee rather than stay in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, a civil aviation official at the airport, said people continued to crowd around the gates despite the attack warnings.

“People don’t want to move, it’s their determination to leave this country that they are not scared to even die,” he told Reuters.

A NATO country diplomat said that although the Taliban were responsible for security outside the airport, threats from Islamic State could not be ignored.

“Western forces, under no circumstances, want to be in a position to launch an offensive or a defensive attack against anyone,” the diplomat added.

EVACUATING TROOPS

The U.S. military has said it would shift its focus to evacuating its troops in the final two days before the deadline..

President Joe Biden has 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 to get people out.

In the 11 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 on Tuesday. The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The Taliban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume after the foreign troops go.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson said on Thursday that Russia had yet to determine its position towards the Taliban and would see how they act toward the Afghan population and Russian diplomats.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said governments of the Group of 20 major economies must be committed to making sure fundamental freedoms and basic rights for women are preserved.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus Writing by Stephen Coates and Robert Birsel Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

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