KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Rocket fire apparently targeting Kabul’s international airport struck a nearby neighborhood on Monday, the eve of the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. The Islamic State group claimed the attack, and there were no immediate reports of casualties.
The rockets did not halt the steady stream of U.S. military C-17 cargo jets taking off and landing at the airport. Afghanistan’s IS affiliate launched a devastating suicide bombing Thursday at one of the airport gates that killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
The extremist group is far more radical than the Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan earlier this month after capturing most of Afghanistan in a matter of days. The two groups have fought each other in the past, and the Taliban have pledged to not harbor terrorist groups.
The Taliban tightened their security cordon around the airfield after the attack, clearing away massive crowds of Afghans who were desperate to flee the country in the waning days of the U.S.-led airlift. Taliban fighters are now stationed along a fence near the main runway.
In the capital’s Chahr-e-Shaheed neighborhood, a crowd quickly gathered around the remains of a four-door sedan used by the attackers. The car had what appeared to be six homemade rocket tubes mounted in place of back seats. IS and other militant groups routinely mount such tubes into vehicles in order to move them undetected.
“I was inside the house with my children and other family members, suddenly there were some blasts,” said Jaiuddin Khan, who lives nearby. “We jumped into the house compound and lay on the ground.”
Some of the rockets landed across town in the Salim Karwan neighborhood, striking residential apartment blocks, witnesses said. That neighborhood is some 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) from the airport. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Five rockets targeted the airport, said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command. A defensive weapon known by the acronym C-RAM — a Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System — targeted the rockets in a whirling hail of ammunition, Urban said. The system has a distinct, drill-like sound that echoed through the city at the time of the attack.
The IS statement, carried by the group’s Amaq media outlet, claimed the militants fired six rockets.
The White House said officials briefed President Joe Biden on “the rocket attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport,” apparently referring to the vehicle-based rocket launch.
“The president was informed that operations continue uninterrupted at HKIA, and has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground,” the statement said, using an acronym for Kabul’s airport.
After the rocket fire, planes continued to land and taxi across to the northern military side of the airport. Planes took off roughly every 20 minutes at one point Monday morning. One C-17 landing in the afternoon shot off flares as it approached — a maneuver to protect against heat-seeking missiles and a sign that the U.S. military remains concerned about surface-to-air missiles loose in the country.
Smoke from several fires along the airport’s perimeter could be seen Monday. It wasn’t clear what was ablaze, although U.S. forces typically destroy material and equipment they won’t take with them.
The airport had been one of the few ways out for foreigners and Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover. However, coalition nations have halted their evacuations in recent days, leaving the U.S. military largely alone at the base with some remaining allied Afghan forces.
The White House said Monday that over the last 24 hours, the American military carried out some 1,200 evacuees on 26 C-17 flights, while two coalition flights flew out 50 others. Since the end of July, U.S. forces have evacuated about 122,300 people, it said.
Ross Wilson, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul now working out of the airport, insisted those evacuations remained ongoing in a message on Twitter.
“This is a high-risk operation,” Wilson wrote. “Claims that American citizens have been turned away or denied access to HKIA by Embassy staff or US Forces are false.” He did not elaborate.
The U.S. State Department released a statement Sunday signed by about 100 countries, as well as NATO and the European Union, saying they had received “assurances” from the Taliban that people with travel documents would still be able to leave.
The Taliban have said they will allow normal travel after the U.S. withdrawal is completed on Tuesday and they assume control of the airport. However, it remains unclear how the militants will run the airport and which commercial carriers will begin flying in, given the ongoing security concerns.
With the withdrawal of the last of its troops, the U.S. is set to end its longest war with the Taliban back in power. Many Afghans remain fearful of the return of Taliban rule, and there have been sporadic reports of killings and other abuses in areas controlled by the group.
The Taliban have honored a pledge not to attack Western forces so long as they evacuate by Tuesday, but IS remains a threat. The group, known as the Khorasan Province after a historic name for the region, saw some of its members freed as the Taliban released prisoners during their takeover.
On Sunday, a U.S. drone strike blew up a vehicle carrying IS suicide bombers before they could attack the ongoing military evacuation at Kabul’s airport, American officials said. However, the Taliban said the strike killed at least 10 people — including civilians and three children, sparking anger over the civilian casualties.
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Urban acknowledged the reports of civilian casualties.
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. carried out another drone strike elsewhere in the country Saturday; it said two IS members were killed.
Meanwhile, a cross-border shooting across the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan killed two Pakistani soldiers, the military said. Pakistani troops “responded in a befitting manner” after the attack in the district of Bajur of the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the military said.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Rahim Faiez in Istanbul, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Samy Magdy in Cairo, Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and Robert Burns and Lou Kesten in Washington contributed.