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Chaos, desperation as thousands throng at Kabul airport

Chaos, desperation as thousands throng at Kabul airport
August 17, 2021 Reuters

KABUL (Reuters) – Thousands of people desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul's airport on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the United States to pause evacuations.

Chaotic scenes at the airport included a group clinging to a US military transport plane as it taxied on the single runway. One person appeared to fall from the plane during takeoff, according to television footage.

US troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating U.S diplomats and embassy staff, a US official said.

At least five people were reported killed, although a witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A US official told Reuters two gunmen had been killed by US forces after they appeared to fire into the crowd.

A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one member of the US military was wounded.

US authorities said evacuation flights resumed on Monday evening, after several hours of delay when a German plane was diverted to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and another was forced to circle over the city.

The Taliban's rapid conquest of Kabul followed Biden's decision to withdraw US forces after 20 years of war - the nation's longest - that he described as costing more than $1 trillion.

The speed at which Afghan cities fell, in days rather than the months predicted by US intelligence, and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights, especially women's rights, have sparked criticism.

NEW REGIME

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the taliban entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed. His whereabouts were unknown on Monday and the State Department declined to say whether it still viewed him as president.

The UN Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of "chilling" curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls.

Former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said he was headed to Doha to meet with a Taliban delegation on Tuesday, accompanied by former President Hamid Karzai and the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Al Jazeera TV reported.

Envoys from the United States, China and other nations had been meeting with Afghan government negotiators and Taliban representatives in Qatar for peace talks in the days leading up to the Taliban's capture of Kabul.

Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

AFGHAN SOLDIERS FLEE

It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others, melted away.

US officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied frontline soldiers.

Hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled to Uzbekistan with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters during the weekend, including one aircraft that collided with an escorting Uzbek fighter jet, causing both to crash, Uzbekistan said.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had authorized the deployment of another battalion to Kabul that would bring the number of troops guarding the evacuation to about 6,000.