BREAKING: Attack could strike Kabul airport within hours, minister warns

August 26, 2021 - 11:33 AM - 202 views

There could be an "imminent, highly lethal" terror attack at Kabul airport within hours, a minister has warned.

Armed Forces minister James Heappey said there were "very credible" reports of a "severe" threat in the capital.

The Foreign Office last night issued new guidance telling anyone near the airport to "move away to a safe location and await further advice".

It comes amid a race to airlift thousands from Afghanistan before foreign troops depart.

The US has set a deadline of 31 August for the withdrawal of its troops, with President Joe Biden rejecting calls from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other allies for an extension.

Mr Heappey did not give a date for the last UK evacuation flights, but said it was likely that UK and other foreign troops would have to leave before the last American airlifts.

Kabul airport is currently being defended and run by the US, which has 5,800 troops on the ground - with the help of more than 1,000 UK troops.

In the update issued on Wednesday evening, the FCDO also warned that travelling by road was "extremely dangerous" with people alleged to have been "mistreated" on their way to the airport.

The US advised Americans in Afghanistan not to travel or gather at the airport "because of security threats outside the gates". Australia has also issued an alert, telling those outside the airport to leave immediately.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday, Mr Heappey said: "There is now very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack and hence why the Foreign Office advice was changed last night."

He later told BBC Breakfast: "The credibility of the reporting has now reached the stage where we believe that there is a very imminent, highly lethal attack possible within Kabul."

Asked by Sky News whether an attack could occur in the coming few hours, Mr Heappey replied: "Yes."

Stressing the "severe" nature of the threat, he told the BBC that it had created an "extraordinarily challenging situation, both on the ground and as a set of decisions to be taken in Whitehall".

"People are desperate, people are fearing for their lives anyway, and so I think there's an appetite among many in the queue to take their chances," he said.

He said UK troops were doing their best to provide security for those queuing, but the "reality" was that they were only holding "defined bits of ground" at the airport and at the hotel where people were being processed, and would therefore be "relying" on the Taliban for security beyond that.

Col Richard Kemp, former head of British forces in Afghanistan, said the risk of a terror attack had been present from the start of evacuation efforts.

He told BBC Breakfast: "I have no doubt that our forces are fully aware of the threat and already, for days now, have been taking measures to try and mitigate it, to prevent something like that happening."

Meanwhile, Mr Heappey added that nearly 2,000 people have been evacuated on eight RAF flights in the past 24 hours, with 11 more flights scheduled on Thursday.

He said 12,279 people had been flown out in the past week, but admitted "there will be people who are in danger who won't be evacuated" before the 31 August deadline.

The total also includes British embassy staff, British nationals, those eligible under the UK government's relocation programme - Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) - and some evacuees from allied countries.

Asked about the estimate that nearly 2,000 people eligible for the ARAP scheme remained in Afghanistan, Mr Heappey said the actual number was "potentially half" of that.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told MPs that some Afghans wanting to flee to Britain may be better off trying to reach one of the country's borders and making their way to a third country.

Speaking in an online meeting, Mr Wallace is reported to have signalled there were few places left on evacuation flights and said "not everyone is going to get out".

But former Tory defence minister Tobias Ellwood, one of the MPs at the meeting, has said any land corridors would have to be agreed with the Taliban if the UK was to avoid the risk of putting people in harm's way.

Another Conservative MP, Julian Lewis, said he had raised the issue of 12 academics in Afghanistan who are at risk from the Taliban.

Mr Wallace told the MPs that all cases raised with him of people who are in serious danger would be considered by the teams processing urgent requests for evacuation.

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