KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. drone strike blew up a vehicle carrying “multiple suicide bombers” from Afghanistan's Islamic State affiliate on Sunday before they could attack the ongoing military evacuation at Kabul's international airport, American officials said. An Afghan official said three children were killed in the strike.
The strike came just two days before the U.S. is set to conclude a massive two-week-long airlift of more than 114,000 Afghans and foreigners and withdraw the last of its troops, ending America's longest war with the Taliban back in power.
A statement from U.S. Central Command said that the U.S. is aware of reports of civilian casualties and is assessing the results of the strike. Navy Capt. William Urban, spokesman for Central Command, said that “substantial and powerful” subsequent explosions resulted from the destruction of the vehicle, which may have caused additional casualties.
The U.S. State Department released a statement signed by around 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 country. 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.
The Afghan official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. Witnesses to the drone strike said it targeted two cars parked in a residential building near the airport, killing and wounding several civilians. Officials had initially reported a separate rocket attack on a building near the airport, but it turned out to be the same event.
According to a senior U.S. official, the U.S. military drone fired a Hellfire missile at a vehicle in a compound between two buildings after individuals were seen loading explosives into the trunk. The official said there was an initial explosion caused by the missile, followed by a much larger fireball, believed to be the result of the substantial amount of explosives inside the vehicle. The U.S. believes that two Islamic State group individuals who were targeted were killed.
The official said it appears that the secondary explosion did significant damage to one of the buildings next to the vehicle. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information about a military operation.
Dina Mohammadi said her extended family resided in the building and that several of them were killed, including children. She was not immediately able to provide the names or ages of the deceased.
Karim, a district representative, said the strike ignited a fire that made it difficult to rescue people. “There was smoke everywhere and I took some children and women out,” he said.
Ahmaduddin, a neighbor, said he had collected the bodies of children after the strike, which set off more explosions inside the house. Like many Afghans, the two men each go by one name.
"We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” said Urban.
Earlier in the day, Urban said in a statement that the U.S. was confident that the missile successfully hit the target. And he said that the large secondary explosions indicated the presence of “a substantial amount of explosive material” in the vehicle.
The strike came two days after an Islamic State suicide attack outside the airport killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. The U.S. carried out a drone strike elsewhere in the country on Saturday that it said killed two IS members.
President Joe Biden had vowed to keep up the airstrikes, saying Saturday that another attack was “highly likely.” The State Department called the threat “specific” and “credible.”
The Sunni extremists of IS, with links to the group’s more well-known affiliate in Syria and Iraq, have carried out a series of attacks, mainly targeting Afghanistan's Shiite Muslim minority, including a 2020 assault on a maternity hospital in Kabul that killed women and newborns.
The Taliban have fought against the IS affiliate in the past and have pledged to not allow Afghanistan to become a base for terror attacks. The U.S.-led invasion in 2001 came in response to the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida planned and executed while being sheltered by the Taliban.
The Taliban increased security around the airport after Thursday's attack, clearing away the large crowds that had gathered outside the gates hoping to join the airlift.
Britain ended its evacuation flights Saturday, and most U.S. allies concluded theirs earlier in the week. But U.S. military cargo planes continued their runs into the airport Sunday, ahead of a Tuesday deadline set by President Joe Biden to withdraw all American troops.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the U.S. has the capacity to evacuate the estimated 300 Americans who remain in the country and wish to leave. He said the U.S. does not currently plan to have an ongoing embassy presence after the withdrawal but will ensure "safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident” after Tuesday, as well as for “those Afghans who helped us.”
In interviews with Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was working with other countries to ensure that the airport functions normally after the withdrawal and that the Taliban allow people to travel freely.
The Taliban have given similar assurances in recent days, even as they have urged Afghans to remain and help rebuild the war-ravaged country.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have sought to flee the country since the Taliban's rapid takeover earlier this month, fearing a return to the harsh form of Islamic rule the group imposed on Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. Others fear revenge attacks or general instability.
The Taliban have pledged amnesty for all Afghans, even those who worked with the U.S. and its allies, and say they want to restore peace and security after decades of war. But many Afghans distrust the group, and there have been reports of summary executions and other human rights abuses in areas under Taliban control.
The shooting of a folk singer in a tense region north of Kabul was bound to contribute to such fears. Fawad Andarabi's family said the Taliban shot him for no reason, just days after they had searched his home and drank tea with him.
“He was innocent, a singer who only was entertaining people,” his son, Jawad, said. “They shot him in the head on the farm.”
The shooting happened in the Andarabi Valley, for which the family is named, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Kabul, where the Taliban battled local fighters even after seizing the capital. The Taliban say they have retaken the region, which is near mountainous Panjshir, the only one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces not under Taliban control.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said his group would investigate the shooting, without providing any further information. The Taliban banned music as un-Islamic when they last ruled the country.
Andarabi played the ghichak, a bowed lute, and sang traditional songs about his birthplace, his people and the country. A video online showed him at one performance, sitting on a rug with the mountains behind him.
“There is no country in the world like my homeland, a proud nation,” he sang. “Our beautiful valley, our great-grandparents' homeland."
Karima Bennoune, the United Nations special rapporteur on cultural rights, said she had “grave concern” over Andarabi's killing. “We call on governments to demand the Taliban respect the #humanrights of #artists,” she tweeted.
Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, also decried the killing.
“There is mounting evidence that the Taliban of 2021 is the same as the intolerant, violent, repressive Taliban of 2001," she tweeted. “Nothing has changed on that front.”
Baldor reported from Washington, Akhgar from Istanbul and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.