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Twelve U.S. service members killed in Kabul airport blasts, along with U.S. and civilian casualties, Pentagon says

Aug. 26, 2021 Updated Fri., Aug. 27, 2021 at 9:38 a.m.

Medical and hospital staff take an injured man on a stretcher for treatment after two blasts Thursday outside the airport in Kabul Thursday.  (Tribune News Service)
Medical and hospital staff take an injured man on a stretcher for treatment after two blasts Thursday outside the airport in Kabul Thursday. (Tribune News Service)
By Rachel Pannett, Ellen Francis and Erin Cunningham Washington Post

Explosions outside the airport in Kabul Thursday killed 12 U.S. service members and dozens of civilians, said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement from the Pentagon.

The attack followed repeated threat warnings from the United States and its allies.

“We can confirm that a number of U.S. service members were killed in today’s complex attack at Kabul airport,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “A number of others are being treated for wounds.”

The deaths marked the first U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan since February 2020, when two American soldiers were killed in an insider attack by an Afghan soldier. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban a few weeks later that included a promise that the militant group would not target U.S. troops.

At least 15 other U.S. service members were wounded Thursday in a terrorist attack near Kabul airport, said the commander of U.S. Central Command.

“It’s a hard day today,” Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., told reporters at a Pentagon briefing, providing the first details about the deadly attack.

“Two suicide bombers assessed to have been ISIS fighters detonated in the vicinity, the Abbey Gate and Hamid Karzai International Airport and in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel, which is immediately adjacent to the attack on the Abbey gate, was followed by a number of ISIS gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces,” McKenzie said, referring to Islamic State militants.

In a separate statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered his condolences and insisted that the United States will not be deterred in completing its mission of evacuating Americans and Afghan partners from Kabul.

“Terrorists took their lives at the very moment these troops were trying to save the lives of others. We mourn their loss. We will treat their wounds. And we will support their families in what will most assuredly be devastating grief,” Austin said. “But we will not be dissuaded from the task at hand. To do anything less – especially now – would dishonor the purpose and sacrifice these men and women have rendered our country and the people of Afghanistan.”

U.S. officials believe the attack outside Kabul international airport was carried out by an affiliate of the Islamic State known as ISIS-K due to communications that were made by the group around the time of the attack, a U.S. official familiar with the matter told the Washington Post. A second U.S. official said the ISIS-K is the leading suspect in the attack.

According to Kirby, the first blast took place right outside the airport’s Abbey gate and the second at the nearby Baron Hotel. Scattered gunshots were heard after the blasts.

Thursday’s bomb attack transformed a canal that flowed by the blast walls of Kabul’s international airport into a graveyard, according to a video of the aftermath that was posted to social media. In one section, twisted bodies, mostly of young men, lay piled atop each other, some faces frozen in agony.

In another section, bodies were partly submerged in the water. One man tried to pick up an unconscious youth, calling him as “bacha” – child. Nearby, the wounded, their faces bloodied, were being helped up by those physically untouched by the blast.

Moments before, the victims all shared something in common: a desire to leave their country and the uncertainty of life under the Taliban. They had waited for hours, perhaps days, for an opportunity to enter the airport through Abbey Gate, controlled by American forces. They were young and old, women and men, children and babies.

At least 13 people were killed in the explosions, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. It was unclear whether the U.S. service members killed were included in the death toll.

Those who survived the twin bombing, depicted in videos and photos posted on social media, managed to stagger away, their bodies covered in blood. Some were rolled away in wheelbarrows and taken to emergency wards, already crowded with patients, where crowds gathered to learn of the fates of their loved ones.

“Our hospital in Kabul was already 80% full before the explosions. Now we added extra beds to admit wounded people coming from the airport in life-threatening conditions,” said Rosella Miccio, the head of Emergency, a medical charity that helps victims of war, in a statement the group posted to Twitter.

In a separate statement, the organization quoted a medical coordinator at its hospital in Kabul describing the scenes he witnessed there.

“Those who arrived could not speak, many were terrified, their eyes totally lost in emptiness, their gaze blank,” the coordinator, identified as Alberto, was quoted as saying. “Rarely have we seen such a situation.”

Large crowds of Afghans have been gathering daily at the airport in hopes of fleeing the country following the Taliban takeover.

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