Several European countries have announced an end to their military evacuations from Kabul’s chaotic main airport, as fears grew of an attack on the site where thousands are still hoping to flee Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
“This is a painful moment,” the Dutch government said in a letter to parliament, quoted by the ANP news agency, as it informed lawmakers that its last flight would take place on Thursday.
Despite all efforts, people who were supposed to be flown out are now being left behind in Afghanistan, the letter said, citing security concerns for the quick withdrawal.
Belgium carried out its final rescue mission on Wednesday evening, having brought more than 1,400 people out of Afghanistan in the past week, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.
The “chaotic and dangerous” situation on the ground “seriously deteriorated over the course of the day,” De Croo said Thursday morning.
Belgium had received information from the United States and others that a suicide bombing attack on the airport area was imminent, he said, echoing risk assessments in other Western capitals.
The German military presence in the Afghan capital is expected to be largely over by Friday, according to dpa sources.
Four more German flights are planned for Thursday. “We are evacuating up to the last second,” the Defence Ministry said on Twitter.
France will end its operations on Friday, Prime Minister Jean Castex told broadcaster RTL. According to the latest information from the Foreign Ministry, France has flown more than 2,000 Afghans to France.
Denmark said it had completed the evacuation of embassy staff from the Afghan capital. “It is no longer safe to fly from Kabul airport,” Defence Minister Trine Bramsen told news agency Ritzau on Wednesday evening.
The last Polish flight taking those in need out of Afghanistan arrived in Poland on Thursday morning and the country’s military mission was set to finish by day’s end.
International forces are largely dependent on the thousands of US troops securing the Kabul airport.
Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden confirmed his intention to withdraw his troops by August 31, despite coming under pressure from US allies to extend it.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said up to 1,500 Americans may still be awaiting an airlift, with thousands more Afghans also aiming to grab the remaining seats.
The White House on Wednesday put the total number of evacuees on US and coalition flights at about 82,300.
With the window for escape closing, huge crowds of desperate people continued to gather at the airport on Thursday, even as Western governments urged their own citizens and the Afghans who worked with them to stay away for their own safety.
The US, Australia, Germany, Britain and others have all issued alerts over the past day that warned against travel to the airport due to the imminent risk of a terrorist attack.
Britain’s junior minister for the armed forces, James Heappey, told Sky News on Thursday there was solid intelligence suggesting a “very lethal attack” on the airport could take place within hours.
Britain has helped 12,279 people get out of Afghanistan since August 13, two days before the Taliban entered Kabul, Heappey said.
Britain’s Press Association reported that British troops will pull out before US forces but that a date has yet to be set. It reported that hundreds of people eligible for British relocation remain in the country.
The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan called Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, has been singled out as the main threat to the evacuation operation.
One witness outside the airport told dpa he went to the facility’s eastern entrance for a third day in a row on Thursday in spite of the risks.
He said he had never seen so many people there before, describing the crowd as so packed it was like “bricks in a wall.”
He said at one point he was about 200 metres from the entrance but it was impossible to move even a metre closer. He feared his child or his wife could be trampled to death.