KABUL, Afghanistan — A panicked crush of people trying to enter Kabul’s international airport killed seven Afghan civilians in the crowds, the British military said Sunday, showing the danger still posed to those trying to flee the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
The deaths come as a new, perceived threat from the Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan has seen U.S. military planes do rapid, diving combat landings at the airport surrounded by Taliban fighters. Other aircraft have shot off flares on takeoff, an effort to confuse possible heat-seeking missiles targeting the planes.
The changes come as the U.S. Embassy issued a new security warning Saturday telling citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without individual instruction from a U.S. government representative. Officials declined to provide more specifics about the IS threat but described it as significant. They said there have been no confirmed attacks as yet by the militants, who have battled the Taliban in the past.
On Sunday, the British military acknowledged the seven deaths of civilians in the crowds in Kabul. There have been stampedes and crushing injuries in the crowds, especially as Taliban fighters fire into the air to drive away those desperate to get on any flight out of the country.
“Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
On Saturday, British and Western troops in full combat gear tried to control the crowds pressing in. They carried away some who were sweating and pale. With temperatures reaching 34 degree Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), the soldiers sprayed water from a hose on those gathered or gave them bottled water to pour over their heads.
“Listen sir, you need to calm down,” one soldier told a man laying in the dirt, as another gave him an orange liquid. “Calm down.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether those killed had been physically crushed, suffocated or suffered a fatal heart attack in the crowds. Soldiers covered several corpses in white clothes to hide them from view. Other troops stood atop concrete barriers or shipping containers, trying to calm the crowd. Gunshots occasionally rang out.
Amir Khan Motaqi, chief of the Taliban’s guidance council, criticized America over the situation at the airport in an audio clip posted online Sunday. He described the U.S.’s actions as “tyranny” — even as it is Taliban fighters who have beaten and shot at those trying to access the airport over the last week.
“All Afghanistan is secure, but the airport which is managed by the Americans has anarchy,” he said. “The U.S. should not defame itself, should not embarrass itself to the world and should not give this mentality to our people that (the Taliban) are a kind of enemy.”
Speaking to an Iranian state television channel late Saturday night in a video call, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem also blamed the deaths at the airport on the Americans in what quickly became a combative interview.
“The Americans announced that we would take you to America with us and people gathered at Kabul airport,” Naeem said. “If it was announced right now in any country in the world, would people not go?”
The host on Iranian state TV, which long has criticized America since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, quickly said: “It won’t happen in Iran.”
Naeem responded: “Be sure this will happen anywhere.”