The United States and its allies warned people to avoid travelling to Kabul airport on Thursday as fears of a potential terror attack threatened evacuation efforts.
The threat of an “imminent, lethal attack” was the latest setback for the massive airlift ahead of President Joe Biden’s fast-approaching deadline for all U.S. forces to withdraw from the country.
As thousands continued to crowd the airport in an effort to flee in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, Western nations raised the alarm and some said they were bringing their evacuations to an end.
In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul urged Americans not to travel to the airport without individual instructions from a U.S. government representative, citing security threats outside.
It urged citizens at three specific gates to “leave immediately.”
A State Department spokesperson called it a dynamic and volatile security situation on the ground.
Allies who have joined Washington in the rush to evacuate their citizens and vulnerable Afghans ahead of Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. to leave issued similar warnings.
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains volatile,” the British foreign office said in updated travel advice late Wednesday, telling people to avoid the airport and “move away to a safe location.”
“There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack,” the warning said.
On Thursday, U.K.’s Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told NBC News’ U.K. partner Sky News that an “imminent, lethal attack” could happen at Kabul airport in a matter of hours.
Australia also urged its citizens to stay away from the airport, warning of a “very high threat of a terrorist attack” at the airport.
“Be aware of the potential for violence and security threats with large crowds,” the country’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
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Kabul airport has been a flashpoint for chaotic scenes and security fears since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital on Aug.15.
Over the weekend, U.S. defense officials warned about tracking specific threats from ISIS against the airport and against Americans and others trying to leave Afghanistan.
Biden has also warned about the risk of attack from the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and Allied forces and innocent civilians,” he said on Tuesday.
The president has stuck to his deadline for U.S. forces to withdraw from the country in spite of criticism and pressure both at home and abroad.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has raised concerns that the country might once again provide a breeding ground for terrorist groups.
But the Taliban, whose fighters guard the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of ISIS-K.
A senior Taliban commander told NBC News on Thursday that they had issued an alert to their top leadership on the threat posed by ISIS-K.
The group arrested an ISIS terrorist at the airport a few days ago who told them about the network and their plans, he said speaking on condition of anonymity and without elaborating.
Around 1,500 Americans still remain in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, with just days left to complete the airlift.
After a chaotic start, the pace of evacuations has increased in recent days, but officials and U.S. allies have expressed skepticism that everyone seeking to leave will be out by the deadline.
And as the security around the airport continues to deteriorate, some European countries have already signaled they are wrapping up.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex told French radio RTL Thursday that France will completely end its evacuations from the Afghan capital Friday night.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also said Wednesday the time window for evacuations from Kabul is closing due to the worsening security situation, according to German broadcaster ZDF.
“It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul,” Danish defense minister Trine Bramsen was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Belgium has already suspended evacuation flights from Kabul, citing the worsening situation in the country, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Twitter Wednesday.
With the deadline looming, Polish deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz also said Poland had evacuated its last group out of Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported.
Andy Eckardt and Nancy Ing contributed.