Kabul – The United States said it destroyed an explosive-laden vehicle with an airstrike in Kabul on Sunday, hours after President Joe Biden warned of another terror attack in the capital as a massive airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans entered its last days.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed the incident, saying a car bomb destined for the airport had been destroyed — and that a possible second strike had hit a nearby house.
The U.S. said it had only struck the vehicle, but added that secondary blasts indicated “a substantial amount of explosive material.”
Local media reported possible civilian casualties, which the U.S. said it was assessing.
And with just two days to go until the agreed-upon date for U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban revealed their supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada was in southern Afghanistan and planning to make a public appearance.
“He is present in Kandahar. He has been living there from the very beginning,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
“He will soon appear in public,” added deputy spokesman Bilal Karimi of the leader, whose whereabouts have remained largely unknown and who has never made a public appearance.
The U.S. airstrike came after a suicide bomber from the Islamic State group on Thursday targeted U.S. troops stopping huge crowds of people from entering Kabul’s airport. About 114,000 people have been evacuated since August 15, when the Taliban swept back into power.
More than 100 people died in the attack, including 13 U.S. service personnel, slowing the airlift ahead of Biden’s deadline for evacuations to end by Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that some 300 Americans still in Afghanistan were seeking to leave the country.
“They are not going to be stuck in Afghanistan,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on the Fox network, adding that the U.S. had “a mechanism to get them out.”
The Pentagon said Saturday that retaliation drone strikes had killed two “high-level” IS jihadists in eastern Afghanistan, but Biden warned of more attacks from the group.
“Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours,” Biden had said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul later released a warning of credible threats at specific areas of the airport, including access gates.
In recent years, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in those countries.
They have massacred civilians at mosques, public squares, schools, and even hospitals.
While both IS and the Taliban are hard-line Sunni Islamists, they are bitter foes — with each claiming to be the true flag-bearers of jihad.
The IS attack has forced the U.S. military and the Taliban to co-operate in ensuring security at the airport in a way unthinkable just weeks ago.
On Saturday, Taliban fighters escorted a steady stream of Afghans from buses to the main passenger terminal, handing them over to U.S. forces for evacuation.
After a 20-year war, the foes were within clear sight of each other, separated by just 30 meters.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said U.S. troops had started withdrawing — without saying how many were left.
Biden traveled Sunday to an air force base in Delaware to attend the somber ritual transfer of the remains of the 13 servicemen killed in Kabul after their flight from Germany.
Western allies that helped with the airlift have mostly ended their evacuation flights. Some voiced despair at not being able to fly out everyone at risk.
The head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir Nick Carter, told the BBC it was “heartbreaking” that “we haven’t been able to bring everybody out.”
A White House official said 2,900 people were evacuated in a 24-hour period between Saturday and Sunday, a drastic reduction from earlier in the week.
France and Britain will on Monday urge the United Nations to work for the creation of a “safe zone” in Kabul to protect humanitarian operations, French President Emmanuel Macron said.
And on Sunday, approximately 100 countries announced in a joint statement they would continue processing documents for both Afghans and foreign nationals to leave the country even after the U.S. withdrawal deadline of Tuesday.
“We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country,” the statement, released by the U.S. State Department, said.
The U.N. said it was bracing for a “worst-case scenario” of up to half a million more refugees from Afghanistan by the end of 2021.
At the airport, gone are the crowds of thousands jammed together around the perimeter, hoping to be let through and allowed onto a plane.
The Taliban have now sealed off roads leading to the facility and are only letting sanctioned buses pass.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.