Australia warns citizens in Afghanistan to stay away from Kabul airport over risk of terrorist attack

Scott Morrison says 1,200 people were flown out of Afghanistan overnight, but the ‘situation is deteriorating’

Australia has joined the UK and the US in warning citizens and visa holders against travelling to Kabul airport, citing the risk of a terrorist attack.

The latest travel advice, which comes ahead of a 31 August deadline for the US-led evacuation operations to cease, will come as a blow to Afghan nationals with connections to Australia who have reported difficulties reaching the airport.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Thursday the Australian defence force was continuing to run evacuation operations, “but the situation is deteriorating”.

Morrison said 1,200 people were flown out of Kabul on six Australian flights and one New Zealand flight on Wednesday night, including Australians, Afghan nationals, and other nationals.

He said that brought to 4,000 the total number of people flown out as a result of Australian operations, “probably more than three times what we would have anticipated” a week ago.

On Tuesday, guards who protected Australia’s former embassy in Kabul expressed fears that they were running out of time to escape Afghanistan, with the Taliban threatening to close the road to the airport and regularly firing over the crowds massing outside.

The foreign minister, Marise Payne, acknowledged that it was “an extremely distressing situation for Australians, Australian family members still in Kabul, people with visas and for family and friends who are here in Australia.”

“We remain focused on the safe evacuation from Afghanistan for as many Australians and visa holders as possible, for as long as possible,” Payne said.

“Access to Hamid Karzai International Airport is extremely limited, it is extremely challenging in terms of checkpoints and difficulties in those processes, particularly through restrictions imposed by the Taliban of the movement of Afghan nationals.”

Australia’s travel advice, updated on Thursday, says the situation in Afghanistan remains “highly volatile and dangerous” and large crowds bring a risk of violence.

“There’s an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack,” the Australian travel advice says.

“Do not travel to Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. If you’re in the area of the airport, move to a safe location and await further advice.”

Australia’s warnings are in line with similar advice issued by its allies. The UK’s foreign office also said there was an “ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack” and people should leave the area near Hamid Karzai International Airport.

UK defence sources have voiced growing concerns about the “high risk of a terrorist attack”, particularly a suicide bombing by the group Isis-K, an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Ben Wallace, the UK’s defence secretary, said Afghans who wanted to flee to Britain may be better off “trying to get to the border” than awaiting Royal Air Force evacuation.

The US, too, has urged American citizens to “avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time” unless instructed to do so by the US officials.

In a signal that the evacuation operation may wind down in the near future, Morrison said the government had to deal with “the terrible, brutal and awful reality of the situation on the ground”.

Without speculating on the end date for the mission, Morrison said he had not sought to “overstate expectations” about what the ADF evacuation flights could achieve.

“So I would say to Australians that when the time comes when the operations are no longer able to be safely conducted, that we can say honestly to them that Australians have done all that we possibly could have done in these circumstances to get as many people out as safely as possible.”

The Taliban has consistently said foreign troops would not be allowed to remain in Afghanistan beyond the agreed 31 August deadline.

Patrick Ryan, a former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade contractor in Afghanistan and advocate for Australia’s Afghan national staff, told the Guardian on Wednesday: “The situation around the Abbey gate and the south gate at the moment is getting absolutely critical. The Taliban is putting more and more pressure on, and we are running out of time.”

Once the evacuation operations wind up, a Senate committee will examine Australia’s 20-year-long military engagement in Afghanistan and the adequacy of the preparation for withdrawal.

On Thursday the Senate agreed to launch an inquiry proposed by the Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, who said it was time to ask why “we got things wrong”.

The foreign affairs, defence and trade references committee will also examine whether Australia’s longest military engagement met the goals set by successive governments.

“We’ll now get to look not just at our messy and chaotic exit, but what got us there, what kept us there, and where we go from here,” Lambie said.


Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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