Evacuation flights restart from Kabul as Taliban hold first press conference

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Afghan security forces arrive at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan security forces arrive at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

During the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

* U.S. military resumes flights

* Biden defends decision to withdraw

* Kabul’s streets are calm

KABUL, Aug 17 (Reuters) – The United States and Western allies evacuated diplomats and civilians from Kabul on Tuesday as Kabul’s new rulers were to hold their first news conference after the Islamist movement ousted the Western-backed government in just days.

U.S. forces took charge of the airport – their only way to fly out of Afghanistan – on Sunday, as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight, 20 years after they were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion.

As they rush to evacuate civilians, foreign powers are assessing how to respond to the new rulers in Kabul, who forbade women from working and girls from going to school when they were last in power from 2001-2006.

U.S. military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands desperate to flee following the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the capital.

The number of civilians had thinned out, a Western security official at the airport told Reuters, a day after chaotic scenes in which U.S. troops fired to disperse crowds and people clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

At least 12 military flights had taken off, a diplomat at the airport said. Planes were due to arrive from countries including Australia and Poland to pick up their nationals and Afghan colleagues.

The Taliban were to hold their first news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on the Taliban to allow all those who wanted to leave the country to leave.

He said NATO’s aim in Afghanistan was to help build a viable state, not to maintain a permanent presence, and so the government’s collapse was a tragedy.

There has been widespread criticism of the U.S. withdrawal amid the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the images of despair at Kabul airport shame the political West.”

Under a U.S. troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

Flights were suspended for much of Monday when civilians desperate to leave spilled onto the runway.

Witnesses said at least five people died in Monday’s chaos at the airport – media reported two people fell to their deaths from the underside of a U.S. military aircraft after it took off.

U.S. troops killed two gunmen who appeared to have fired into the crowd at the airport, a U.S. official said.

A video of desperate Afghans trying to clamber on to a U.S. military plane as it was about to take off could haunt the United States, just as a photograph in 1975 of people trying to get on a helicopter on a roof in Saigon became emblematic of the withdrawal from Vietnam.

President Joe Biden said he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on a withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”

Facing criticism from even his own diplomats, he blamed the Taliban’s takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army’s unwillingness to fight.

People try to get into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer
People try to get into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer
40,000 WOUNDED

The Taliban began their push in the spring with attacks on government positions in the countryside and targeted killings in cities. The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 40,000 people with wounds caused by weapons had been treated at facilities it supports in June, July and August, 7,600 of them since Aug. 1.

U.S. forces are due to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month under the deal with the Taliban that hinged on their promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

That day, some 640 Afghans crammed into a U.S. C-17 transport aircraft to fly to Qatar, a photo taken inside the plane showed.

The U.N. Security Council has called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling curbs” on human rights and violations against women and girls.

The Taliban have said there will be no retribution against opponents and promised to respect the rights of women, minorities and foreigners, but many Afghans are sceptical and fear old enemies and activists will be rounded up.

(Reporting by Kabul and other bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel and Jane Merriman; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jon Boyle)