By Laura Smith-Spark, Saskya Vandoorne, Oren Liebermann, Nick Paton Walsh and Sandi Sidhu, CNN
Nine members of one family — including six children — were killed in a US drone strike targeting a vehicle in a residential neighborhood of Kabul, a relative of the dead told a local journalist working with CNN.
The US carried out a defensive airstrike in Kabul, targeting a suspected ISIS-K suicide bomber who posed an “imminent” threat to the airport, US Central Command said Sunday.
The youngest killed was a 2-year-old girl, according to a brother of the one of those killed. They were “an ordinary family,” he said. “We are not ISIS or Daesh and this was a family home — where my brothers lived with their families.”
Neighbors and witnesses at the scene of the drone strike in Kabul told CNN that several people were killed, including children.
“All the neighbors tried to help and brought water to put out the fire and I saw that there were five or six people dead,” a neighbor told CNN. “The father of the family and another young boy and there were two children. They were dead. They were in pieces. There were [also] two wounded.”
The US military acknowledged later Sunday that there are reports of civilian casualties following the strike.
“We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties. It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further,” Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command, said in a statement.
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” he added.
US forces have been racing to complete their evacuation operation before Tuesday’s deadline and under the threat of a new terror attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. A suicide bombing outside the airport gates on Thursday killed 13 US service members and at least 170 others.
Sunday’s drone strike on a vehicle is the second by US forces targeting the ISIS-K terror group in the space of three days. A US official confirmed the location of the strike as being in Kabul’s Khaje Bughra neighborhood.
“U.S. military forces conducted a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamad Karzai International Airport,” said US CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Bill Urban.
“We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.”
The Taliban, which is now in control of Afghanistan, condemned the strike later Sunday, saying the US had violated the country’s sovereignty.
Bilal Kareemi, a Taliban spokesperson, told CNN that it was “not right to conduct operations on others’ soil” and that the US should have informed the Taliban. “Whenever the US conducts such operations, we condemn them,” he said.
How the strike happened
The vehicle that was targeted by the US in Sunday’s airstrike on Kabul was next to a building and contained one suicide bomber, a US official told CNN.
It remains unclear if the vehicle was intended to be a car bomb, or if the suicide bomber was using it for transport. “It was loaded up and ready to go,” the official tells CNN.
A Pentagon official told CNN that according to initial reports, the target was a vehicle believed to be containing multiple suicide bombers. The threat could also have been a car bomb or someone with a suicide vest, he said, citing initial reports.
Urban said earlier Sunday the US military was “assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time” and would remain vigilant against potential future threats.
One man told a journalist working with CNN who visited the compound that “a rocket hit and six people were in there who have been killed. There was a car inside.” The journalist was not allowed to enter the compound.
Another man said that he heard the sound of a rocket and gained access to the scene from a neighbor’s house. “First we managed to remove a 3- to 4-year old child. The fire and smoke had engulfed the whole area,” he said.
He added that “three people were inside the car” and three others were outside the car. The injured, who included children, were taken to the hospital, he said.
US President Joe Biden said Saturday that military commanders had advised that “another terrorist attack on Kabul’s airport is “highly likely in the next 24-36 hours,” and the US Embassy in Kabul warned all US citizens to leave the airport area immediately.
The White House said Sunday morning that about 2,900 people were evacuated from Kabul from 3 a.m. ET Saturday to 3 a.m. ET Sunday. Those evacuations were carried out by 32 US military flights and nine coalition flights.
The mission is clearly winding down, with fewer people brought out than during the same time period on preceding days.
Biden traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Sunday to mourn with the families of the 13 US service members killed in Thursday’s attack as their bodies were brought back to US soil.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the 13 would be remembered as heroes. “These men and women made the ultimate sacrifice so that others could live,” he said.
ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, has claimed that an ISIS militant carried out the suicide attack, but provided no evidence to support the claim. US officials have said the group was likely behind the bombing.
On Saturday, the Pentagon said two “high profile” ISIS targets had been killed and another injured in a US drone strike late Friday in Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, in a retaliatory strike for Thursday’s attack.
Vulnerable people left behind
After a desperate, two-week effort to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies from the country following the Taliban’s seizure of power, Western governments now face the challenge of how to deal with an Islamist militant group they’ve spent the past two decades fighting.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he intends, alongside the United Kingdom, to submit a resolution to an emergency session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) that would focus on the creation of a “safe zone” in Kabul for Afghans leaving the country.
“Our draft resolution aims to define, under UN protection, a safe zone in Kabul that would allow humanitarian operations to continue,” Macron told French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, adding that he intends to “maintain pressure on the Taliban” in doing so. The UNSC session is due to convene Monday.
US: ‘We will use leverage’ in dealings with Taliban
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the Biden administration was committed to a “safe passage” of Americans and Afghans who helped the US government after the withdrawal deadline.
“August 31 is not a cliff. After August 31, we believe that we have substantial leverage to hold the Taliban to its commitments to allow safe passage for American citizens, legal permanent residents and the Afghan allies who have travel documentation to come to the United States,” Sullivan told CNN.
“We will use that leverage to the maximum extent and we will work with the rest of the international community to make sure the Taliban does not falter on these commitments.”
Roughly 250 Americans who are attempting to leave Afghanistan remain in the country, according to new figures from a US State Department spokesperson. About 50 evacuations have taken place in the past day, bringing the total number of American citizens evacuated to 5,500.
The US State Department, along with governments from numerous other countries, released a statement Sunday saying they would hold the Taliban to their promises that they would allow people to leave the country after August 31.
“We will continue issuing travel documentation to designated Afghans, and we have the clear expectation of and commitment from the Taliban that they can travel to our respective countries,” the statement said.
Wife: ‘They will kill him’
For those at risk in Kabul and elsewhere, the picture appears bleak.
Florence, a Frenchwoman living in a Paris suburb, believed her Afghan husband of 18 years would fly out of Kabul to safety on Thursday. Florence’s husband was in Afghanistan for his father’s funeral and had been due to fly out on a commercial flight on August 22.
But the airport suicide bombing left him stranded in the Afghan capital. France wrapped up its evacuation mission on Friday — leaving Florence, whose last name CNN is not using for safety reasons, terrified for her husband’s fate.
“My husband is completely lost, he’s stressed, he’s scared, he doesn’t know which way he’ll come back to France. Now he’s thinking maybe to take the road,” Florence said.
Her husband is just one of potentially thousands of people still in Afghanistan who fear their lives could be in danger under Taliban rule, both Afghans and other nationalities.
Despite having a French residency permit and being on the French foreign ministry’s passenger list for evacuation, he never made it past US forces guarding the airport gates in Kabul, she said.
He is terrified at what will befall his country under Taliban rule.
“It’s horrible when you go back to the same conditions than 20 years ago because when you don’t know, you are just living the moment but when you know exactly who these people are, what will happen to you, it’s much more terrible,” she said.
Her husband also fears for his own safety, as being found in possession of the French documents that could give him a way out represents a massive danger in itself.
“It’s already a huge problem, if they understand that he is married to a French citizen, there is not one minute of his life still, there is not one minute of his life possible anymore, they will kill him,” Florence said.
Johnson: ‘We will use every lever we have’
Britain concluded its own evacuation mission from Afghanistan on Saturday, with its last remaining diplomatic staff pulled out alongside military forces.
While nearly 15,000 people were brought to safety, according to the UK ambassador to Kabul, the head of the UK’s armed forces, Gen. Nick Carter, told the BBC that people eligible be brought out numbering in the “high hundreds” had been left behind.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday that diplomatic recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s “new regime” would be dependent on the organization’s actions, stressing that Britain would “engage with the Taliban not on the basis of what they say, but what they do.”
“If the new regime in Kabul wants diplomatic recognition, or to unlock the billions that are currently frozen, they will have to ensure safe passage for those who wish to leave the country, to respect the rights of women and girls, and to prevent Afghanistan from, again, becoming an incubator for global terror,” Johnson said.
“We will use every lever we have — political, economic, diplomatic — to help the people of Afghanistan and to protect our own country from harm,” he added. The UK embassy will now relocate to Doha, Qatar.
Johnson added that the UK government would increase its development assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million (about $394 million).
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said he was following the situation in Afghanistan “with great concern” as he delivered his Angelus Prayer, and thanked those working for peace and to help people in need.
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CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne reported from Paris and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Jake Tapper, Tim Lister, Duarte Mendonca, Celine Alkhaldi, Leslie Bentz, Jason Hoffman, Barbara Wojazer, Hada Messia, and Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.