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US ramps up Kabul evacuations, says Taliban pledged ‘safe passage’ to airport

American army airlifted 3,200 people so far; US military officials coordinating with Islamist group after shock takeover

Afghan families walk by the aircrafts at the Kabul airport 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)
Afghan families walk by the aircrafts at the Kabul airport 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)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The White House said Tuesday that the Taliban had promised that civilians could travel safely to the Kabul airport as the US military stepped up its airlift for Americans and Afghans fleeing the Islamist group.

The US military has evacuated more than 3,200 people from Afghanistan so far, including 1,100 on Tuesday alone, a White House official said.

“Today, US military flights evacuated approximately 1,100 US citizens, US permanent residents, and their families on 13 flights,” the official said, adding: “Now that we have established the flow, we expect those numbers to escalate.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that the 3,200 who had been taken out of the country so far included US personnel, and that nearly 2,000 Afghan “special immigrants” have been relocated to the United States.

Some 11,000 people with US nationality remain inside the country, including diplomats, contractors and others, according to the White House, most waiting to be evacuated after the Taliban takeover.

Washington wants to complete the exodus before its August 31 withdrawal deadline, and thousands of US soldiers were at the airport as the Pentagon planned to ramp up flights of its huge C-17 transport jets to as many as two dozen a day.

US officials said they were in contact with Taliban commanders to ensure the flight operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport remained safe from attack and that citizens and Afghans seeking to leave had safe passage to the airport.

But State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the US could decide to keep its core diplomatic presence, now operating out of the airport after the US embassy was shuttered, after August 31.

“If it is safe and responsible for us to potentially stay longer, that is something we may be able to look at,” Price said.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (C) leaves after addressing the first press conference in Kabul on August 17, 2021 following the Taliban stunning takeover of Afghanistan. (Hoshang Hashimi / AFP)

Price also called on the Taliban up follow through on promises to respect the rights of citizens including women.

“If the Taliban says they are going to respect the rights of their citizens, we will be looking for them to uphold that statement,” he said.

Despite some reports that people are being harassed and even beaten as they try to leave, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said “large numbers” had been able to reach the airport.

“The Taliban have informed us they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” he told reporters.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan listens to a question during a press conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on August 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP)

At the Pentagon, Major General Hank Taylor said that US military officials at the airport had also been in communication with Taliban commanders about ensuring that the evacuations would continue safely over the coming days.

“We have had no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban,” said Taylor.

He said that since the airport was reopened early Tuesday, the US military had evacuated close to 800 people, among them 165 Americans, on seven flights.

The others include Afghans granted US refugee visas, mostly for having worked as translators for American and NATO forces; other foreign nationals; and other unspecified “at risk” Afghans.

Hundreds of people gather near a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at a perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. (AP/Shekib Rahmani)

The US Department of Defense has poured troops into the airport since Saturday to protect the exodus as the Taliban insurgents entered Kabul after a lightning siege across the country and seized power.

Taylor said the number of US troops would rise from 2,500 on Monday to around 4,000 by late Tuesday.

He said the US aimed to increase its airlift to one aircraft an hour so that between 5,000 and 9,000 passengers could be carried out per day.

“We are confident we have taken the right steps to resume safe and orderly operations at the airport,” he said.

Some 640 passengers crammed into Reach 871, a US Air Force C-17 that flew from Kabul Airport to Qatar on August 15. (Courtesy: Defense One)

Some other countries, including Germany and France, have also been able to pick up their nationals and Afghans qualified to travel to those countries.

Taylor spoke a day after security broke down at the airport, with videos showing hundreds of Afghans on the runway trying to impede a giant C-17 transport and clinging to it.

Videos appeared to show two people falling to their deaths from the aircraft after it took off.

Another person was later found dead in a wheel well.

US Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said they were investigating the incidents.

“Before the air crew could offload the cargo, the aircraft was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians,” she said.

“Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible.”

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