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Death toll of those attempting to flee Taliban via Kabul airport rises to 20

Fighters opposing the Taliban recapture several rural districts north of Kabul, as the White House asks commercial airlines to help transport refugees

Afghans stand in line to be evacuated onto an Italian Airforce C130J plane from Kabul airport, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. (Italian Defense Ministry via AP)
Afghans stand in line to be evacuated onto an Italian Airforce C130J plane from Kabul airport, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. (Italian Defense Ministry via AP)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A panicked crush of people trying to enter Kabul’s international airport killed seven Afghan civilians in the crowds, the British military said Sunday, showing the danger still posed to those trying to flee the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

At least 20 people have been killed at the airport in the past week, a NATO official said on Sunday.

“The crisis outside the Kabul airport is unfortunate. Our focus is to evacuate all foreigners as soon as we can,” the anonymous NATO official told the Guardian.

The deaths come as a group of fighters opposing the Taliban’s rule battle the insurgents in the mountains and valleys to the north of Kabul, capturing several rural districts. While details of the fighting remain unclear, it marks the first organized resistance to rise up against the Taliban since they blitzed across the country in under a week to seize the majority of the country and its capital. The Taliban deployed fighters on Sunday to launch a possible offensive there.

Kabul’s airport, now one of the few ways out of the country for the millions in the city, has seen days of chaos since the Taliban entered the capital on August 15. Thousands rushed the airport last Monday in chaos that saw the US try to clear off the runway with low-flying attack helicopters. Several Afghans plunged to their deaths while hanging off the side of a US military cargo plane, some of the seven killed that day alone.

In chaotic scenes on Saturday, British and Western troops in full combat gear tried to control crowds big enough to be seen in satellite photos pressing into the airport. They carried away some who were sweating and pale. With temperatures reaching 34 degree Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), the soldiers sprayed water from a hose on those gathered or gave them bottled water to pour over their heads.

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

The British military on Sunday acknowledged the seven deaths of civilians in the crowds. There have been other stampedes and crushing injuries in the crowds, especially as Taliban fighters fire into the air to drive away those desperate to get on any flight out of the country.

“Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible,” the British Defense Ministry said in a statement.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether those killed had been physically crushed, suffocated or suffered a fatal heart attack in the crowds. Soldiers covered several corpses in white clothes to hide them from view. Other troops stood atop concrete barriers or shipping containers, trying to calm the crowd. Gunshots occasionally rang out.

Speaking to an Iranian state television channel late Saturday night in a video call, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem blamed the deaths at the airport on the Americans in what quickly became a combative interview.

“The Americans announced that we would take you to America with us and people gathered at Kabul airport,” Naeem said. “If it was announced right now in any country in the world, would people not go?”

The host on Iranian state TV, which long has criticized America since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, quickly said: “It won’t happen in Iran.”

Naeem responded: “Be sure this will happen anywhere.”

In this image provided by the US Marines, a Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, waits with a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/US Marine Corps via AP)

Meanwhile, fighting has erupted in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Kabul. Forces organizing under the banner of the “People’s Uprising” have taken three districts around the Andarab Valley, nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains near Panjshir, the only province still not under Taliban control.

On Sunday, the Taliban published video online showing fighters, including their elite special forces, preparing to head there, possibly to fight the “People’s Uprising” forces. Four officials said the Taliban had gone into the Keshnabad area of Andarab Valley to abduct the children of those opposing them.

Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa, the former head of intelligence in Balkh province, and Abdul Ahmad Dadgar, another leader in the uprising, alleged that Taliban fighters had attacked people’s homes and burned them while taking children. Two other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also alleged the Taliban seized fighters’ children. The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the fighting.

Later on Sunday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the initial stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, asking for 18 aircraft from American carriers to assist in transporting Afghan refugees once they are evacuated from their country by military aircraft. Under the voluntary program, civilian airlines add to military aircraft capability during a crisis related to national defense. That program was born in the wake of the Berlin airlift.

The Biden administration asked for three aircraft each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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