At least 13 US soldiers were among scores of people killed in two attacks at Kabul’s airport on Thursday, US officials said.
More than 70 Afghans, including 28 Taliban members, were counted among the dead after the twin bombings and shootings that were claimed by ISIL, Taliban and hospital sources told Al Jazeera.
It is believed to be the most US troops killed in Afghanistan in a single incident since 30 personnel died when a helicopter was shot down in August 2011.
“A thirteenth US service member has died from his wounds suffered as a result of the attack on Abbey Gate,” Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban said in a statement.
Despite the attack, Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, commander of the US Central Command, said that the US is “continuing to execute the mission,” to evacuate US citizens and as many Afghans, who have documents to leave the country.
“Our mission is to evacuate US citizens or third-country nationals, especially immigrant visa holders, US embassy staff and Afghans at risk,” McKenzie.
Earlier, two US officials told The Associated Press that of the 12 initially killed, 11 were Marines and one a Navy medic. Information about the 13th fatality is still not available.
The US presently has 5,800 troops at the airport in Kabul working to evacuate thousands of US citizens, Afghans and others.
The apparent suicide vest attack occurred at the Abbey Gate to the airport where US forces were screening Afghan civilians for admission to the airport, McKenzie said.
McKenzie said “ISIS gunmen” also had opened fire on the crowds and US forces after the bomb detonated.
The US military casualties are the first American deaths from hostile action since February 2020 when two Army special forces soldiers were killed in an green-on-blue insider attack by an Afghan soldier.
Eleven US service members were killed in 2020 and 24 in 2019 bringing the total of US military fatalities in Afghanistan to 2,218 since the US invaded after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, according to the Defense Department.
More than 71,000 Afghan civilians and 66,000 Afghan military and police forces have been killed in the war, according to Brown University and the Brookings Institution, which have tracked the data.
Two bombs were detonated by apparent suicide bombers near the Abbey Gate to the airport where Afghans were lining up to enter the US-secured airport. The second bomb was close to the Baron Hotel where many British citizens had been awaiting evacuation.
“The impact of these blasts has been huge,” said Rossella Miccio, president of Emergency, a non-governmental medical aid group.
Emergency workers had received about 60 wounded Afghan civilians with multiple injuries of shattered limbs, fractured bones and projectile wounds and six dead, Miccio told Al Jazeera.
Responsibility for the bombings initially was being attributed to an ISIS (ISIL) group affiliate in Afghanistan, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), which grew out of disaffected Taliban members who hold harder-line views, an unnamed US official told The Associated Press.
“If we can find who is associated with this we will go after them,” McKenzie said.
“We are working very hard right now to find who’s associated with this.”
ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack on a website, according to AFP news service and in an Arabic language telegram channel reviewed by Al Jazeera identified the bomber by name.
Others cautioned against drawing conclusions about the source of the attacks.
“While it is too early to draw any conclusions about those responsible, ISIS-K had a clear motivation to disrupt our efforts to evacuate many tens of thousands of people,” Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said in a statement earlier in the day.
There had been multiple official warnings from the US and UK of a potential bomb attack on crowds trying to get into the airport.
The White House said 13,400 people were evacuated in the 24 hours that ended early Thursday morning on, US East Coast time, a substantial drop from the 19,000 airlifted by all means the day before.
President Joe Biden, who has come under criticism in the US Congress for the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan as US troops withdrew, was being briefed by his national security team at the White House on Thursday.
“As we wait for more details to come in, one thing is clear: We can’t trust the Taliban with Americans’ security,” Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a tweet.
I strongly & forcefully condemn today’s explosions outside of the Kabul airport targeting US citizens, personnel, & vulnerable Afghans trying to flee Afghanistan.
As we wait for more details to come in, one thing is clear: We can’t trust the Taliban with Americans’ security. https://t.co/17zUk5VBDu
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SFRCdems) August 26, 2021
How Biden will respond and whether the bombing will affect the US evacuation and planned August 31 withdrawal is unclear.
The first meeting between Biden and new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett scheduled for Thursday was delayed for a day and a virtual meeting between Biden and state governors to discuss resettling Afghan refugees was cancelled.
Biden has previously warned the Taliban that the US would respond with force if US personnel conducting the evacuation of US citizens and Afghan civilians from the airport were attacked.
“As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban: If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the US presence will be swift and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary,” Biden said on August 16 at the White House.