WASHINGTON/KABUL－The United States and its allies urged people to move away from Kabul airport on Thursday, shortly before a suspected suicide bombing killed at least 13 people, as Western troops hurried to complete evacuation of the area before an Aug 31 deadline.
Pressure to finish the evacuations of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban has intensified, with all US and allied troops due to leave the airport next week.
In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the US embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately.
The warnings about the airport were unusually specific. "Those at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately," said the US State Department, citing unspecified "security threats".
In a similar advisory, Britain told people in the airport area to "move away to a safe location".
"There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack," the British Foreign Office said in a statement. "If you can leave Afghanistan safely by other means, you should do so immediately."
Australia also urged its citizens and visa holders to leave the area, warning of a "very high threat of a terrorist attack" at the airport.
The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in Kabul, where a massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been underway since the Taliban captured the city on Aug 15.
While Western troops in the airport worked feverishly to move the evacuation as fast as possible, Taliban fighters were guarding the perimeter outside, thronged by thousands of people trying to leave.
Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, an Afghan civil aviation official working at the airport, said people continued to crowd around the gates despite the attack warnings.
"It's very easy for a suicide bomber to attack the corridors filled with people and warnings have been issued repeatedly," he told Reuters.
'Attack against anyone'
A NATO diplomat in Kabul said that although the Taliban were responsible for security outside the airport, threats from the Islamic State could not be ignored.
"Western forces, under no circumstances, want to be in a position to launch an offensive or a defensive attack against anyone," the diplomat said. "Our mandate is to ensure evacuations end on Aug 31."
The Taliban are enemies with the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan, after an old name for the region.
"Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group," said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another Western official said flight operations had slowed on Wednesday but the pace of evacuations would hasten on Thursday.
Belgium on Wednesday said it had completed its evacuation operation after removing its own citizens as well as others from the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg, and Afghans seeking asylum in those countries.
France to end mission
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday that his country will no longer be able to evacuate people from Kabul airport after Friday night.
It was unclear how many eligible people hoping to travel were left but one Western official said an estimated 1,500 holders of US passports and visas were trying to get to the airport.
The White House said President Joe Biden was briefed on Wednesday about the threat from Islamic State as well as contingency plans for the evacuation.
Biden has ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month, to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time to get people out.
In the 11 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the US and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 on Tuesday. The US military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.