The US and UK have said they will continue evacuation operations in Afghanistan despite a suspected terror attack on Kabul airport that could have left many dead and dozens wounded.
After the UK prime minister chaired an emergency response meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, he said Britain’s airlift would continue “going up until the last moment”.
“We are able to continue with the programme in the way we have been running it, according to the timetable that we have got and that is what we are going to do,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Marine Corps general Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US central command, told a news conference: “We are continuing to execute the mission. Our mission is to evacuate US citizens, third country nationals, special immigrant visa holders, US embassy staff and Afghans at risk.
“Despite this attack we are continuing the mission.”
The suicide bomb attack killed scores of civilians and 12 US troops, and threw into mayhem the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee.
The US death toll made it the deadliest single incident for American forces in Afghanistan in a decade and one of the deadliest of the entire 20-year war.
Afghan health officials were quoted as saying 60 civilians died, but it was not clear whether that was a complete count.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed two blasts occurred in a “complex attack” outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, killing “a number of US service members” and injuring others, as “a number of Afghans fell victim to this heinous attack”.
The Ministry of Defence said there had been no UK military or government casualties reported at an early stage.
Islamic State, which has emerged in Afghanistan as enemies both of the West and the Taliban, claimed responsibility in a statement in which it said one of its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”. US officials also blamed the group.
Kirby said at least one explosion took place at or near the Baron Hotel, where the UK has been processing Britons and Afghans eligible for evacuation after the Taliban seized control of the nation.
He said another blast occurred a short distance away near the Abbey Gate of Kabul’s airport.
Around 60 people wounded in the attack were being treated at a nearby surgical centre, according to Emergency, a charity that runs a network of war hospitals and first aid posts in Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said his group “strongly condemns” the attack and alleged it happened in an area under US control.
Armed forces minister James Heappey had earlier warned that there was “very credible reporting” of an “imminent” and “severe” terror threat.
He had urged people queuing outside the airport trying to flee the Taliban to move to safety amid concerns surrounding the IS terror cell.
Johnson paid tribute to the Afghans and members of the US military who were killed.
“We extend our condolences both to the United States of America and the people of Afghanistan,” he said.
Johnson would not comment on who the government suspected was behind the attack.
He said that while some Afghans eligible to reach Britain would not be evacuated before the airlift finishes, the government would pressure the Taliban to let them leave later.
Alicia Kearns, a member of the foreign affairs and national security strategy committees, said there had been “many hurt” in an attack near the Baron Hotel.
The Conservative MP tweeted: “A bomb or attack with gun fire at northern gate of Baron’s Hotel. Worried this will devastate evacuation – so many hurt. My heart is with all those injured and killed.”
Her colleague Nus Ghani said she was on the phone to somebody outside Kabul airport when the blast took place.
“Explosion at Kabul airport. I was on the phone to an Afghan outside the airport when he heard the explosion,” the MP tweeted, before saying he was “OK” and was heading to a “safe house”.
Former Royal Marine Paul Farthing, the founder of an animal shelter in Kabul who has has been campaigning to get his staff and animals evacuated, said his vehicle outside the airport was caught in the “chaos”.
Known as Pen, he told the PA news agency: “All of a sudden we heard gunshots and our vehicle was targeted, had our driver not turned around he would have been shot in the head by a man with an AK-47.
“We’ve been in the airport, and back out of the airport; the whole thing’s a mess.”
A local witness told PA he heard the explosion by Kabul airport as he was walking to evening prayer.
Ahmad, whose name has been changed for security reasons, said he is safe as he was some distance from the blast.
“First was explosion, and then firing started, I mean… heavy gunfire,” he said. “But even far away people were running… there’s alarm.”
The evacuation effort was already under extra strain after a warning on Wednesday night from the Foreign Office for UK nationals near the airport to leave and head for safety due to the “ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack”.
Johnson had vowed “we’ll do everything we can to get everybody else” before the deadline for British troops to depart in advance of the exit of US forces, after US president Joe Biden refused his request to extend the time frame.
But the PM conceded that although the “lion’s share” of eligible Afghans have been removed from the country, “there will be people who still need help”.
Heappey said Britain had 11 flights scheduled out of Kabul on Thursday but declined to say whether that will be the end of the operation, citing the security of troops on the ground.
The US is providing security at Kabul airport, meaning other allied forces are expected to have to wind down their evacuation efforts and depart ahead of the Americans.
Heappey had said eight RAF flights managed to lift 1,988 people from Kabul within the past 24 hours, taking the total since the Taliban began its march to power to 12,279.