Revenge fears grow in Afghanistan with airlift outcome uncertain

·5-min read

Fears deepened on Friday that the Taliban are reneging on promises to pardon opponents and their families in Afghanistan, with thousands facing a challenge to flee the country as under-pressure US President Joe Biden said he cannot guarantee the final outcome of the chaotic airlift.

Images of small children being carried by foreign soldiers have brought home the plight of tens of thousands of Afghans who fear life under the Islamist extremists and have been trying to get out since Sunday, when the Taliban took control of the capital Kabul.

Their rapid offensive shocked the United States and its foreign allies, who were just two weeks away from completing their withdrawal from the country.

Human rights organizations called on US President Joe Biden to extend an August 31 deadline for American troops to leave Kabul, where they are securing the city's airport for the evacuation.

In a televised address Biden, facing criticism over his country's response to the Taliban takeover, said he thinks he can get all Americans out by that deadline but "we're going to make that judgment as we go."

"This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history," Biden said. "I cannot promise what the final outcome will be."

The most at-risk Afghans, however, would not be able to get out before month's end unless flights from Kabul are increased, Sarah Holewinski, head of the Washington bureau at Human Rights Watch, told a news conference.

Outside the airport's concrete walls men, women and children crowd together in hope.

A US soldier fired warning shots, and footage from the NGO Rise to Peace showed tear gas hanging in the air.

About 13,000 people have left on American military aircraft in less than a week, the White House said, but Biden cautioned that the US government does not know how many of its citizens are even in Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

The airlift involving Afghan allies and foreigners has also seen British, Turkish, French and other European military personnel sent in to Kabul.

- 'We are ashamed' -

But the operation remains dangerous and logistically difficult.

Evacuation flights stopped for several hours because of overcrowding at a staging base in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, but resumed after several hours, the Pentagon said on Friday.

A video viewed more than two million times on social media showed Afghans at Kabul airport lifting a crying baby above a crowd and passing it to a US soldier who pulls the child to safety over barbed wire.

The father had asked US Marines to look after the baby because it was ill, and after treatment the child was returned to its parent, the Pentagon said.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that the main challenge "is ensuring that people can reach and enter Kabul airport." He spoke at an emergency videolink conference of the alliance's foreign ministers.

A German civilian was shot on his way to the airport, a spokeswoman for the German government said.

In a professed rebrand, the Taliban have repeatedly vowed a complete amnesty but an intelligence document for the United Nations said militants were going door-to-door hunting down former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces.

According to the confidential document by the UN's threat assessment consultants seen by AFP, militants were also screening people on the way to Kabul airport.

The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the Taliban had shot dead the relative of one of its journalists while searching for the editor.

The Taliban have said their fighters are not allowed to enter private homes, but have conceded some of their fighters were breaking into properties.

"Some people are still doing this, possibly in ignorance," Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a senior Taliban official, said in a Twitter post.

"We are ashamed and have no answer for it."

- 'Sign of resistance' -

During their first stint in power, before being ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001, women were excluded from public life and girls banned from school.

People were stoned to death for adultery, while music and television were also banned.

This week, there have been isolated signs of opposition to the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan.

Local media reported on Friday that resistance fighters in the northern province of Baghlan had taken back three districts from Taliban control.

Former interior minister Masoud Andarabi, who has fled the country, told AFP Taliban fighters had been questioning villagers, sparking an uprising.

A resistance movement was forming in the Panjshir Valley, led by deposed vice-president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, the son of Afghanistan's most famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Ahmad Massoud said he was "ready to follow in his father's footsteps".

Former top government official Abdullah Abdullah on Friday posted photos on Facebook of him and ex-president Hamid Karzai meeting with elders and resistance commanders in the province -- just days after the pair met with Taliban leaders.

At the first Friday prayers since the fall of the country to Taliban rule, there were appeals for Afghans to give the new regime a chance.

Gunmen flanked an Islamic scholar as he delivered a fiery speech to a packed Kabul mosque for the most important prayers of the week.

In Herat, one worshipper, Sebqatullah, said the Taliban had brought security to the city after years of violence.

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