By Ivana Kottasová, Barbara Starr, Kylie Atwood, Nick Paton Walsh, Sam Kiley, Zachary Cohen, Jennifer Hansler and Nectar Gan, CNN
The United States has vowed to continue the evacuation of American citizens and allies from Afghanistan, as US troops brace for the threat of more terrorist attacks following two deadly bombings at Kabul’s airport.
At least 90 Afghans died and another 140 were injured Thursday, an official with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health said, after suicide bombers and gunmen attacked packed crowds outside the airport.
“It was as if someone pulled the ground from under my feet; for a moment I thought my eardrums were blasted and I lost my sense of hearing,” said one man who had been in the queue near the airport’s Abbey Gate in the hope of getting onto one of the flights leaving the country during the final days of the airlift.
“I saw bodies and body parts flying in the air like a tornado taking plastic bags … into the air. I saw bodies, body parts, elderly and injured men, women and children scattered in the blast site,” the man, a former employee of an international development group with a US special immigrant visa, told Reuters news agency.
“It is not possible to see doomsday in this life, but today I saw doomsday, I witnessed it with my own eyes,” he said.
According to the Pentagon, 13 US service members were killed and 18 others injured in the attack.
Ten Marines were among the troops killed and several more were wounded, Marine spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger said. The identities and units of those killed won’t be announced until after relatives are notified, he added.
The assault came as the US and other Western countries were racing to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies ahead of an August 31 deadline, after the Taliban retook control of the country.
Thousands of Afghans had been gathering at the airport’s gates in recent days in hopes of being evacuated. Footage posted to social media on Thursday after the explosions showed chaotic scenes of crowds trying to help the wounded amid bodies on the ground. Photos showed bloodied people being transported away from the scene in wheelbarrows.
Video shot by local Afghan journalists in the wake of the blasts, appears to show people continuing to gather near the airport perimeter despite the enormous personal risk.
ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for the attack, but provided no evidence to support the claim. US officials have said the group was likely behind the atrocity.
Speaking from the White House, US President Joe Biden said evacuation efforts would not be stopped by the attack, and that he had ordered US military commanders to develop plans to strike “ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities.”
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said.
About 7,500 people were evacuated from Kabul over the course of 12 hours between 3 a.m. and 3. p.m. ET on Thursday, the White House said. It’s unclear how many of those evacuations took place after the attack.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said US troops were continuing the evacuation mission at “best speed,” noting there were still about 1,000 American citizens in Afghanistan.
But he said the focus right now was on the “extremely active threat streams against the airfield.”
McKenzie described the threats from ISIS as “imminent,” raging from rocket attacks to “vehicle-borne” suicide attacks in addition to “walk-in” suicide attackers like the assault on Thursday.
He said the US military is using attack helicopters and other manned and unmanned aircraft to defend the airport in Kabul, as well as sharing some intelligence with the Taliban for security purposes.
“They don’t get the full range of information we have. But we give them enough to act in time and space to try to prevent these attacks,” said McKenzie.
US officials have been warning over the past week that a threat of a terror attack at the airport was becoming more acute. Earlier on Thursday local time, US diplomats in Kabul warned American citizens to “immediately” leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats.
The risk of potential suicide attacks by ISIS-K had already led the US to establish alternative routes to Kabul airport, earlier on in the evacuation operation.
One of the explosions on Thursday happened at the airport’s Abbey Gate, the main entry point to the airport; primary security there has been provided by US Marines. The area around that gate had been used for holding refugees after they passed through the Taliban checkpoints outside the airport, and before they were allowed to enter the facility.
At least one other explosion happened at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
Baron Hotel was used by British soldiers and other allies as an evacuation handling center to process evacuees, before moving them up to the Abbey Gate. It is unclear whether international forces were still in the area when the explosion happened.
Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, journalist and author Matthieu Aikins said he could hear “shooting and sirens” from the airport less than an hour after the attack.
“At that point, we went back to the emergency hospital, and they were bringing the casualties in there. There was just body after body. It was a really terrible sight,” Aikins said. “You have tens of thousands of people cramming in from every angle at the same time, this desperate pressure to get the American citizens and others out. So it was really truly a recipe for disaster.”
Tens of thousands of people have so far been evacuated by the US military and NATO allies from the airport in the past two weeks. These evacuations are set to start winding down in the next few days, ahead of the US’ August 31 deadline for the final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
More than 95,700 people have been evacuated since August 14 and over 101,300 since the end of July.
About 8,500 people were evacuated by the US military, and approximately 4,000 were evacuated via coalition flights, from 3:00 a.m. eastern time Thursday to 3:00 a.m. Friday, with a total of approximately 12,500 people evacuated.
That brings the total number of people evacuated via US military and coalition flights to 105,000 since August 14, and 110,600 since late July, according to the White House.
The UK’s evacuation operation will end in a “matter of hours” following the closure of the UK’s main processing center, the Baron Hotel, outside Kabul airport, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Friday.
Wallace told Sky News that following the decision to close the processing center at 4.30 am UK time, the country will now “process” the “1,000 people approximately in the airfield now ” but the operation has a “matter of hours” left.
The “sad fact,” said Wallace, is that “not every single one will get out.”
More than 18,700 evacuees from Afghanistan have come through US air base Ramstein in Germany so far, according to the airbase’s Public Affairs Office, and a huge influx of more than 10,000 evacuees are expected to arrive over the coming hours.
Germany will leave its “MedEvac,” a flying intensive care unit, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for 24 hours in order to be able to support American forces if necessary, Germany’s Ministry of Defense tweeted Friday. Germany evacuated more than 5,000 people from Afghanistan over the course of its mission, according to a tweet from the German Foreign Office.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned the situation around the airport had seriously deteriorated in the wake of the blasts.
“As we speak, we have 20 buses of dual citizens and Afghans that we would like to be able to repatriate,” he said. “I cannot guarantee that we will be successful because the security situation is beyond our control.”
Australia and New Zealand have both ended their evacuation flights from Kabul. Other countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland, have said their evacuation missions would end on Thursday.
Spain ended its evacuation mission with the last remaining people expected to land at the Torrejon military airbase near Madrid later on Friday, the country’s presidency said in a statement.
Two military planes carrying the last 81 Spaniards remaining in Afghanistan including military personnel and embassy personnel arrived in Dubai from Kabul early on Friday.
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Duarte Mendonca, Ingrid Formanek and Betsy Klein contributed reporting.