Islamic State struck the crowded gates of Kabul airport in a suicide bomb attack on Thursday, killing scores of civilians and 12 U.S. troops, and throwing into mayhem the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee.
Kabul health officials were quoted as saying 60 civilians were killed. Video shot by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies strewn around a canal on the edge of the airport. At least two blasts rocked the area, witnesses said.
Islamic State said one of its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army“. U.S. officials also blamed the group.
It was believed to be the most U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in a single incident since 30 U.S. personnel died when a helicopter was shot down in August 2011.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the perpetrators during televised comments from the White House.
“We will not be deterred by terrorists … We will continue the mission,” Biden said.
Corpses lay in the canal by the airport fence, video from the scene showed, some being fished out and laid in heaps while wailing civilians searched for loved ones.
“For a moment I thought my eardrums were blasted and I lost my sense of hearing. I saw bodies and body parts flying in the air like a tornado blowing plastic bags. I saw bodies, body parts elders and injured men, women and children scattered,” said one Afghan who had been trying to reach the airport. “That little water flowing in the sewage canal had turned into blood.”
The U.S. deaths were the first in action in Afghanistan in 18 months, a fact likely to be cited by critics who accuse Biden of recklessly abandoning a stable and hard-won status quo by ordering an abrupt pullout.
General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the United States would press on with evacuations, noting that there were still around 1,000 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. But several Western countries said the mass airlift of civilians was coming to an end, likely to leave no way out for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the West through two decades of war.
Violence by Islamic State is a challenge for the Taliban, who have promised Afghans they will bring peace to the country they swiftly conquered. A Taliban spokesman described the attack as the work of “evil circles” who would be suppressed once foreign troops leave.
Western countries fear that the Taliban, who once sheltered Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, will allow Afghanistan to turn again into a haven for militants. The Taliban say they will not let the country be used by terrorists.