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Chaos on the runway: Kabul airport mobbed as Afghans make desperate dash to exit

Thousands crowd onto the tarmac in bid to flee after Taliban takeover; all commercial flights canceled; US State Department secures airport perimeter, evacuates employees

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban take control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and conceded the insurgents had won the 20-year war. (Photo by AFP)
Afghans crowd at the tarmac of Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban take control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and conceded the insurgents had won the 20-year war. (Photo by AFP)

KABUL, Afghanistan — US troops fired shots into the air and all commercial flights were canceled at Kabul airport Monday as thousands of Afghans crowded onto the tarmac in the hope of catching any flight out after the weekend Taliban takeover.

Dramatic footage posted on social media showed a scene of chaos on the runway, with civilians frantically clambering up an already overcrowded and buckling set of airstairs.

It was a desperate bid to board a parked passenger plane and escape the city a day after the government’s collapse.

As a crowd of hundreds watched on, those who successfully climbed the stairs helped others up, while some hung from the stair railings by their hands.

Panicked families trying to flee the capital carried overpacked luggage, with frightened children in tow.

The situation caused such a commotion that US troops fired into the air to restore order and all commercial flights were canceled.

“I feel very scared here. They are firing lots of shots into the air,” the witness said, asking not to be named in case it jeopardized his chances of leaving.

The US State Department said American troops had secured the perimeter of the airport as they evacuated embassy employees and thousands of Afghans who worked for Washington’s interests since they toppled the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

‘We are afraid’

The US embassy in Kabul tweeted to tell American nationals and Afghans to “not travel to the airport.”

But thousand more Afghans — even some with no links to the US-led coalition — showed up in the hope of getting out, even without tickets or visas for foreign destinations.

The bedlam at the airport came just hours after Taliban leaders ordered their fighters into Kabul to maintain order as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

“We are afraid to live in this city and we are trying to flee Kabul,” said a 25-year old man who also asked to be identified only as Ahmed.

Many of the arrivals were fueled by rumors, or fake news spread on social media.

“I read on Facebook that Canada is accepting asylum from Afghanistan,” said Ahmed.

“Since I served in the army… there is danger. The Taliban would definitely target me.”

Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP)

The US said it had evacuated its entire embassy staff to the airport, but they were being kept separate from those without permission to travel.

Other videos posted on social media also showed desperate scenes overnight of people fighting to cram into the back of a cargo plane.

Outside of the airport, an uneasy calm held over Kabul as armed Taliban insurgents patrolled the streets and set up checkpoints.

In a message posted to social media, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar called on his fighters to remain disciplined after taking control of the city.

“Now it’s time to test and prove, now we have to show that we can serve our nation and ensure security and comfort of life,” he said.

The scenes at the airport were reminiscent of the chaos that enveloped Washington’s earlier bungled escape from Vietnam in 1975, even as Washington swatted away the comparison.

“This is not Saigon,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a broadcaster on Sunday.

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