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US says drone strike kills alleged planner of Kabul airport bombing

No details given on identity of target; US presses ahead with evacuation as thousands continue effort to flee Taliban; France completes departure of citizens

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)
A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A US drone strike early Saturday killed a militant in the group blamed for the deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, US officials said, while American forces working under heightened security and threats of another attack pressed ahead in the closing days of the US-led evacuation from Afghanistan.

The attack in eastern Afghanistan killed a member of the country’s Islamic State affiliate, US Central Command said. President Joe Biden has laid responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombing on the Islamic State, an extremist group that is an enemy both to the West and to Afghanistan’s Taliban and is known for especially lethal attacks.

The death toll in the suicide bombing rose to 169 Afghans, a number that could increase as authorities examine fragmented remains, and 13 US service members.

The command spokesman, Navy Capt. William Urban, said officials knew of no civilian casualties. US officials gave no immediate information on the person killed, including any possible link to the suicide bombing.

The White House and the Pentagon warned there could be more bloodshed ahead of US President Joe Biden’s fast-approaching deadline Tuesday to end the airlift and withdraw American forces. The next few days “will be our most dangerous period to date” in the evacuation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, hours before the US issued a security alert for four of the airport gates.

Thursday’s bombing marked one of the most lethal attacks the country has seen. The US said it was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan since 2011.

A flag flies at half staff at the Mt. Soledad National War Memorial on August 27, 2021 in La Jolla, California. 170 People were killed, including 13 U.S. Servicemen during an ISIS led terrorist attack outside of the Kabul Airport. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images/AF )

As the call to prayer echoed Friday through Kabul along with the roar of departing planes, the anxious crowds thronging the airport in hope of escaping Taliban rule appeared as large as ever, despite the scenes of victims lying closely packed together in the aftermath of the bombing.

Around the world, newly arriving Afghan evacuees, many clutching babies and bare handfuls of belongings in plastic bags, stepped off evacuation flights in the United States, in Albania, in Belgium and beyond. In Kabul on Friday, Afghan families looked for loved ones among bodies, placed along a hospital sidewalk for identification, of bombing victims who died pleading for a seat on the US-run airlifts.

Afghans, American citizens and other foreigners were all acutely aware the window was closing to get out via the airlift.

Jamshad went to the airport Friday with his wife and three small children. He clutched an invitation to a Western country he didn’t want to identify.

“After the explosion I decided I would try. Because I am afraid now there will be more attacks, and I think now I have to leave,” said Jamshad, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, wait to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The Pentagon said Friday that there was just one suicide bomber — at the airport gate — not two, as US officials initially said. A US official said that the suicide bomber carried a heavier-than-usual load of about 25 pounds of explosives, loaded with shrapnel.

The US official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary assessments of the attack. The officials who gave the Afghan death toll also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The Afghan victims ranged from a hard-working young journalist to an impoverished father, driven to the airport by hopes of a better life.

The American dead were 11 Marines, a Navy sailor and an Army soldier. Many had been tiny children when US forces first entered Afghanistan in 2001.

One, Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Mae’lee Grant Nikoui, sent a video to a family friend in the United States just hours before he was killed, showing himself smiling and greeting Afghan children.

“Want to take a video together, buddy?” Nikoui asked young boy, leaning in to be in the picture with him. “All right, we’re heroes now, man.”

British officials said two of the country’s citizens and the child of another Briton also were among those killed when the bomb exploded.

On the morning after the attack, the Taliban used a pickup truck full of fighters and three captured Humvees to set up a barrier 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the airport, holding the crowds farther back from the US troops at the gates than before.

US military officials said that some gates were closed and other security measures put in place. They said there were tighter restrictions at Taliban checkpoints and fewer people around the gates. The military said it had also asked the Taliban to close certain roads because of the possibility of suicide bombers in vehicles.

The Pentagon said the US would keep up manned and unmanned flights over the airport for surveillance and protection, including the use of AC-130 gunships.

Military personnel walk by Belgian military planes, used as part of an evacuation from Afghanistan, upon arrival at Melsbroek Military Airport in Melsbroek, Belgium, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

US officials said evacuees with proper credentials still were being allowed through the gates. Inside, about 5,400 evacuees awaited flights.

In Washington, US commanders briefed Biden on developing plans to strike back at the Islamic State and make good on the president’s vow to the attackers to “hunt you down and make you pay.”

Biden pronounced the US effort to evacuate Americans, Afghan allies and others most at risk from the Taliban a “worthy mission.”

“And we will complete the mission,” he said.

The UN Security Council called the targeting of fleeing civilians and those trying to help them “especially abhorrent.”

The Taliban have wrested back control of Afghanistan two decades after they were ousted in a US-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks. Their return to power has terrified many Afghans, who have rushed to flee the country ahead of the American withdrawal.

Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol a street in Kabul on August 27, 2021, as last-ditch evacuation flights took off from Kabul airport on August 27, a day after twin suicide bombings on crowds trying to flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan killed at least 85 people, including 13 US servicemen. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP)

More than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated through the Kabul airport, according to the US, but thousands more are struggling to leave in one of history’s biggest airlifts.

The White House said Friday afternoon that US military aircraft had flown out 2,100 evacuees in the previous 24 hours. Another 2,100 people left on other coalition flights.

The number was a fraction of the 12,700 people carried out by US military aircraft one day early in the week, when the now two-week-old airlift not only met but exceeded intended capacity for a couple days.

France ended its own evacuation effort and pulled up stakes on a temporary French embassy at the airport, leaving Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. US allies and others have ended or are ending their airlifts, in part to give the US time to wrap up its own operations.

The Taliban have said they will allow Afghans to leave via commercial flights after the U.S. withdrawal, but it is unclear which airlines would return to an airport controlled by the militants.

Untold numbers of Afghans, especially ones who had worked with the US and other Western countries, are now in hiding, fearing retaliation despite the group’s offer of full amnesty.

The new rulers have sought to project an image of moderation in recent weeks — a sharp contrast to the harsh rule they imposed from 1996 to 2001, when they forbade girls to get an education, banned television and music and held public executions.

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