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WASHINGTON – U.S. troops Monday sought to gain control of the international airport in Kabul after thousands of Afghans rushed through the civilian side and swarmed the military landing strip. At least seven people have died in the mayhem.
Senior U.S. military officials say the dead include some who fell from a departing American military transport jet, according to The Associated Press. Videos show people clinging to the sides of a U.S. military plane as it taxied, as well as falling from a plane as it took off.
U.S. troops killed two people, both of them armed, at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the chaos as civilians poured onto runways and halted flights, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.
The troops had been fired on, he said, and one service member may have been wounded, but reports were incomplete. There was no indication that the two people killed were members of the Taliban.
About 2,500 U.S. troops were at the airport, and another 500 will arrive by Tuesday, Kirby said. In all, about 6,000 American forces will be at the airport.
President Joe Biden was expected to address the Taliban’s takeover Monday from the White House.
US troops try to secure civilian side of airport
One of America’s top military commanders met face-to-face with senior leaders of the Taliban, urging the longtime enemy not to interfere with the evacuation at the Kabul airport as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, a U.S. official told The Associated Press.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, warned the Taliban officials that the U.S. military would respond forcefully to defend the airport if necessary, a U.S. official said separately, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks not yet announced publicly.
U.S. troops were trying to set up barriers to separate the military portion of Hamid Karzai International Airport from the civilian terminal and its landing strip, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment publicly. The airport had no physical barrier between those operations. Huge crowds of Afghans desperate to flee the country and its new Taliban leadership entered the civilian side of the airport and swarmed a U.S. Air Force C-17 as it taxied on a runway.
U.S., Turkish and other allied troops were clearing the field to allow flights to resume, Kirby said. Crowds of Afghans remained on the south side of the airport where civilian flights arrive and depart.
Airport chaos:Panicked people at Kabul airport cling to plane taking off as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan
U.S. troops were erecting barriers with concertina wire to secure the military side of the airport, the official said. An additional 3,000 troops were expected to arrive in Kabul in the next few days to help.
Jonathan Finer, deputy White House national security adviser, speaking on MSNBC early Monday, confirmed additional U.S. troops would be sent to the airport.
“Absolutely there’s a plan to secure the airport,” Finer said. “That’s why we’ve been able to flow additional forces into Afghanistan without having to fight their way in. There has been contingency planning going on now for a period of month.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is looking for two military bases in the United States to house evacuated Afghans, Kirby said. Fort Lee in Virginia has received some refugees already. As many as 22,000 Afghans may be housed at those bases.
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The Taliban’s surprisingly swift rout of Afghan security forces and fall of the government on Sunday – including the flight of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from the country – drew comparisons to the U.S. abandonment of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, as well as harsh criticism for Biden’s strategy for winding down the nearly 20-year-old war in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, a tense calm set in, with most people hiding in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections. There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and there was less traffic than usual on eerily quiet streets. Fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city’s main squares.
The U.S. Embassy has been evacuated, and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries also have closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.
Biden expected to speak Monday afternoon
Facing heavy criticism for his handling of Afghanistan, Biden planned to return to the White House on Monday and deliver remarks in the afternoon. Biden spent the weekend at Camp David, where he had been out of sight save for an image of him participating in a videoconference that was released Sunday by the White House.
Robert Gibbs, who was White House press secretary during the Obama administration, called it imperative that Biden speak to the nation and the world.
“Hopefully this happens very soon,” Gibbs tweeted Monday morning. “He must lay out again the reasoning behind his decisions, how he sees the future of this region & what must be done to prevent another safe haven for al-Qaeda to plan attacks.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., put it more bluntly.
“Mr. President,” McCarthy tweeted, “Do your job and address the nation.”
Contributing: The Associated Press; Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY