Civilians stuck in Afghanistan told to find safety away from Kabul airport

By Melissa Coade

August 26, 2021

Marise Payne
Foreign minister Marise Payne. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne has warned of the heightened terrorism threat at Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul hours before two explosions killed at least 72 people, announcing new travel advice for those attempting to evacuate on an emergency flight out of Afghanistan.

Civilians have been told not to travel to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. 

Those who are in the vicinity of the airport have been told to leave, find somewhere safe and stay there until further notice. 

“Shelter in place, move to a safe location and wait for advice,” Payne said during a press conference in Canberra on Thursday.

“Afghanistan remains highly volatile and dangerous. Be aware of the potential for violence and security threats with large crowds,” she said. 

The SmartTraveller portal has also published the new advice, underscoring that the threat of a terrorist attack in Kabul is ‘ongoing and very high’.

“Take all extra precautions for your safety. Remain vigilant and be aware of your surroundings. 

“Our ability to provide consular assistance to Australians remaining in Afghanistan is severely limited,” the travel advice said.

Those who are stuck in Afghanistan and want Australia’s help getting out, are being told to register via the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website.

Authorities in the UK and New Zealand have posted similar travel advice on Thursday, Payne said. The US has told its contacts to leave the airport ‘immediately’.

Sometime after midnight Thursday morning (Australian time), social media lit up with reports of two explosions being detonated at Kabul airport. BBC reports that at least 72 people perished in the attack, US military personnel among them.

US president Joe Biden responded to the attack by telling the perpetrators: “We will hunt you down and make you pay”. 

The New York Times reports that an Islamic State affiliate known as Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, has threatened a large-scale attack on the evacuation mission at the Kabul airport. The group was created about six years ago by the disaffected Pakistani Taliban and has carried out a number of attacks in Afghanistan this year. 

US intelligence sources warn of the group’s threats to infiltrate crowds outside the Kabul airport with suicide bombers, mortar strikes against the Hamid Karzai airfield and a bomb-laden truck.

“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” US president Joe Biden said.

In a Tweet, Taliban leaders also condemned the attack and said the explosions occurred in a part of the airport precinct where US forces were responsible for security. 

According to Payne, the Australian government understood how distressing the situation was for Australians with connections to Afghanistan, and those who wanted to leave but were still in the country. She said the ADF would remain focused on executing safe evacuations for as many people with ties to Australia for as long as the security situation would allow.

“We must listen to reports of credible threats. That is why we have issued a revised travel advice,” the minister said. 

“Access to HK airport is extremely limited and extremely challenging in terms of checkpoints, difficulties in those processes – particularly through the restrictions imposed by the Taliban on movement of Afghan nationals.”

ADF airlifts 4,000 civilians, 639 arrived safely on Aussie soil

The situation in Kabul was highly dangerous, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison added, and the danger has been escalating day by day. He said that another 1,200 people had left Kabul on Wednesday night on ADF and NZ flights to Australia’s air base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“They included Australians, Afghans and other nationals,” Morrison said.

“That means in total, around 4,000 people have been able to be evacuated as a result of this operation in some 29 flights over the last eight days.”

Another two transfer flights from the UAE were scheduled to return to Australia, with approximately 639 evacuees now quarantined in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.  

The pm said an almost-zero level of COVID had been detected in tests of the new Australian arrivals

“Australian citizens, residents and pre visa-ed Afghan nationals are the priority for those transfer flights back to Australia,” Morrison said. 

“The department of home affairs will continue the additional processing that is required for those we’ve uplifted out of Afghanistan with temporary visas and we will do further processing at AMAB (Al Minhad Air Base) before they’re transferred to Australia.”

“The situation is deteriorating and we will continue to operate safely but paramount in our operation is ensuring the safety of those Australians who are directly involved in the evacuation effort,” he said. 

The foreign minister said Australians working on the ground in Kabul to assist the evacuation effort were motivated to keep going and continue to do so for as long as possible.

“This has been a difficult period for Australian officials. The fact that they have seen 4,000 taken to the air to be evacuated from Kabul has been their motivation to keep going and they are still doing that,” she said. 

The pm went on to thank the Australian military personnel and bureaucrats who were putting their own safety at great risk to facilitate the mission in Kabul. He also said that ADF personnel have been able to get three times as many people out in its emergency evacuation missions from Kabul than originally expected one week ago.

“There are a large number who are now accommodated at AMAB, and we thank the UAE for their great support, ensuring that we’ve been able to bring people safely there,” Morrison said. 

Among the priority services being provided to the group of evacuees is counselling for the trauma they would have experienced in the months and moments before their evacuation, Morrison said. 

“We’ve been closely with those who are experts in this area to ensure the psychological and other support that is needed for people who have been transferred back to Australia is there to help them adjust in many cases to their new life in Australia.

“And [also] for those residents and citizens who are returning, to help them to adjust to what has been an incredibly harrowing experience,” the pm said. 

US, UK partners dealing directly with Taliban leaders

The foreign minister said  that Australia was involved in a collaborative, cooperative international process of intelligence sharing, logistics and security to facilitate safe evacuation flights out of Kabul.

With danger at Hamid Karzai airport rapidly escalating, Payne said the expectation was that the Taliban would stick to the undertakings it had made to allow US and allied forces to evacuate those who wanted to leave safely. The US and UK governments were engaging directly with the Taliban to negotiate the changing situation, she added. 

“Our cooperation with other countries including New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States has been very important in achieving this outcome,” Payne said.

“Let me be very clear in terms of what we expect: the Taliban has made a range of undertakings and in relation to people seeking to leave Afghanistan, including Australians and Australian visa holders, we would expect those undertakings to be met, and to allow those people our citizens and our Australian visa holders to depart safely if they wish to do so,” she said. 

When asked about claims that an Afghan trying to reach the airport had been beaten by Taliban officials, that every effort was being made to help people with ties to Australia. 

The foreign minister said that the Australian government has been in ongoing contact with vulnerable Afghan nationals to try and help them reach safe checkpoints where they could access the Hamid Karzai airport before the situation deteriorated to the point it has.

“Commenting on specific cases really only exacerbates the danger that those people face and the exposure that that gives them is not helpful,” Payne said. 

“But we have tried very, very hard 24/7 literally, to make sure we are dealing with as many of those individual cases as possible.”

Scott Morrison said that he has been careful during his dialogue about Afghanistan not to overstate expectations. 

“It is difficult for the government to be daily making decisions – as I said, the National Security Committee has been meeting every single day and on many occasions more than once, to be looking at very specific circumstances and what can be done in various situations. 

“I can assure you, anywhere we’ve been able to make it possible to get people out, we have been doing that,” Morrison said. 

The foreign minister added that she has heard reports of attacks on women and children in Afghanistan, of threats made by the Taliban forces at checkpoints, and invasions onto transport vehicles trying to get to the Kabul airport.

“The complexity of this is significant, but we have tried to contact as many of them [as we can] and continue to do so,” she said. 

PM flags Australia’s ‘post evacuation’ resettlement plan 

The prime minister described the evacuation mission from Kabul as a ‘moral hazard’ because the Australians he sent to oversee the process were also his responsibility. 

“I am asking them to do things that are done on the basis of that balance of risk and putting their safety very high, extremely high in our assessments,” Morrison said.

“But equally, taking the necessary risks to save lives and that is what we have been doing.”

Once the situation arrived at a point where the evacuation missions would have to end — and they may end soon given the US’s withdrawal date of August 31 is only days away – Morrison said that Australia could say it had done everything possible to help as many civilians as it could. He would not be drawn on whether Australia intended to stop its operations before the end of the month.

For Afghan nationals who did not have an Australia visa but wanted the help of Australia, the foreign minister encouraged them to apply for a visa under Australia’s humanitarian program. She said Australia would work with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Afghans in neighbouring countries. 

“This will be a collaborative, cooperative, international process and Australia will be called to that in terms of supporting Afghans who wish to come to Australia and who qualify under the visas to do so,” Payne said.

Morrison said the conversation about Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis would soon move to a ‘post evacuation resettlement phase’. While the plan has not yet been finalised, he said the process would be challenging but not insurmountable.

“Already plans are on the way to how we will then move into the next phase,” the pm said.

“Right now we’re seeking to get people out of Kabul and then we will move to the next phase, which would see us resettle additional people, not just this year, but in the many years ahead.”

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