At least 13 US service members killed in Kabul airport attack

By Rob Picheta, Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Veronica Rocha and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 0427 GMT (1227 HKT) August 27, 2021
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8:06 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

With 36 hours left to evacuate and gates now closed, an estimated 150 Americans need to get to Kabul airport – source

From CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh in Doha

People being evacuated from Afghanistan queue to board an U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 24.
People being evacuated from Afghanistan queue to board an U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 24. Handout/Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Force/AP

There are an estimated 150 American citizens left in Afghanistan whom the United States need to get to the airport, according to a source familiar with the situation.

The source said the estimate is the number known to need assistance to reach the airport as of 8 a.m. local time on Thursday morning. 

They added that since midnight local time, 200 had been evacuated to the base and flown out. This brings the total number of US citizens evacuated since August 14 to 4,700, the source added.

The statement suggests the operational total of Americans needing to be evacuated is smaller than the broader totals provided by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. 

Blinken said on Wednesday afternoon that there were 500 Americans identified who needed help to get to the airport. Blinken added there were another 1,000 who might need help, but whose citizenship or desire to leave were uncertain. Given the rate of evacuation overnight, the 150 operational total may be a revised update on Blinken’s total of 500, and may even include some of the 1,000 uncertain cases.

The source added there was another 36 hours until the end of the operation to evacuate, and the focus was now on local Afghan staff who worked for the US Embassy. “American citizens are still trickling in but their priority has shifted to local staff,” the source said. 

The source estimated there were about 1,800 local US Embassy Afghan staff still to get to the airport and “36 hours to do it.” They had already recovered 1,300 local staff and evacuated them, they said.

Access to the base is increasingly difficult, the source said. The source added that all the gates on the base were now closed, apart from the one that Afghan security forces were unofficially using to bring in their evacuees.

The main access point at the airport for many holders of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), the Abbey Gate, was “fully” closed earlier on Thursday, possibly due to one of many IED threats, they added. “They were kind of able to pull people through yesterday but I think it's totally cleared out and closed now. They’ve had multiple IED threats the whole time.”

The source added that gate closures mean there are “tons of special interest groups circling the airport in buses trying to figure out how to get in. Very little that can be done for them even though they’d love to help. So literally no one else can get in,” unless they are escorted. “Not even approved SIVs.”

The source expressed frustration at how Washington DC connections were forcing the operation to prioritize certain individuals. “These boutique special interest Congressional/WH groups that keep showing up are distracting from the core mission of getting those people out who we, the US, gave our word to.”

The source said the evacuation operation – although already winding down -- would end Friday. The source added the British were departing on Thursday night. CNN has contacted the UK Ministry of Defence for comment.

8:06 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Flight thought to be carrying another US congressional delegation is turned away from Kabul airport – source

From CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh in Doha

A private jet thought to be carrying another US congressional delegation has been denied permission to land at Kabul airport, a source familiar with the situation told CNN on Thursday. 

The Gulfstream jet was visible over Turkmenistan on open-source air traffic websites, but its destination and final route were unclear. It was last seen over Baku, Azerbaijan, and departed from Athens, Greece.

It remains unclear which representative was on the jet.

On Tuesday two congressmen, Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan, made a clandestine trip to Kabul "to conduct oversight on the mission to evacuate Americans and our allies."

The decision was criticized by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said: "We don't want anyone to think this was a good idea. There's a real concern about members being in the region."

5:17 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Taliban removes security from ex-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, source says

From CNN's Nic Robertson 

Karzai (center left) meets with senior Haqqani group leader Anas Haqqani (center right) and Abdullah Abdullah (second right) in Kabul on August 18. 
Karzai (center left) meets with senior Haqqani group leader Anas Haqqani (center right) and Abdullah Abdullah (second right) in Kabul on August 18.  Handout/Taliban/AP

The Taliban has taken away security from former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan official who leads the High Council for National Reconciliation, a source told CNN.

On Monday, the Taliban confiscated weapons from Karzai's armed protection team and took away his vehicles, prompting the former president to move in with Abdullah, the source said. On Wednesday, the Taliban later also searched Abdullah's home and took his security and vehicles. 

Karzai and Abdullah are effectively under house arrest in Kabul without their bodyguards and at the mercy of the Taliban, according to the source. 

Last week, a Taliban spokesman told CNN that the group wanted to form an inclusive government. It has since held talks with former president Karzai and former chief executive Abdullah, both of whom stayed in Kabul when the Taliban took over the capital more than a week ago.

Abdullah previously said he was hopeful for the Taliban forming an inclusive government, the source tells CNN. Abdullah is less optimistic than he was a week ago.

5:02 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

"Disturbing reports": Former UN employees send letter to Secretary-General on Afghan security concerns

From CNN's Liam Reilly

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, on August 13.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, on August 13. Xie E/Xinhua/Getty Images

Former UN employees have sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres outlining the risks and dangers UN-affiliated personnel face in Afghanistan, according to a former employee familiar with the letter. 

In the letter, the former employees note they’re “gravely concerned about the safety of our colleagues and friends who are at risk,” especially after receiving “disturbing reports of the Taliban raiding homes, beating people for affiliation with international organizations and requesting meetings for ‘letters of forgiveness.’”

The letter cites UN protocol, which outlines the organization’s duty and responsibility to individuals it recruits and their families should they be endangered because of their work for the UN. The letter then directly notes that “locally-recruited personnel and their family members are indeed endangered as a direct consequence of their employment by organizations of the United Nations common system.”

“They should not be asked to sacrifice their lives and safety in order to accomplish this. It would be much safer for them to continue their work from outside of the country,” the letter concludes.

There are an estimated 3,000 UN staff in Afghanistan. Most are local Afghans, and about 10% are women.

The UN has previously stated about 100 international staff has left the country to work elsewhere. 

Guterres held a virtual town hall Wednesday morning including UN staff in Afghanistan to address ongoing safety concerns, according to a statement by UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

“We are continuing to look at possible relocations of international staff, also, obviously, of national staff that are at risk. But I think it bears saying again that the UN presence in Afghanistan is ... the UN is present in Afghanistan and will remain in Afghanistan.” Dujarric said during the discussion.

4:39 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Terror threats hamper Afghanistan evacuation as Biden's deadline looms

Analysis by CNN's Stephen Collinson

In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, families walk towards their flight during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 24.
In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, families walk towards their flight during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 24. Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps/AP

A grave and specific ISIS terror threat is hanging over the frantic endgame of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with time fast running out to rescue up to 1,500 Americans and the fate of fleeing Afghans looking darker by the hour.

President Joe Biden is so far sticking to his Tuesday deadline for the final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan, after an initially chaotic drawdown that has since evolved into a mammoth and daring airlift of more than 82,000 people out of Kabul.

But in an alarming sign of the deteriorating security environment, US diplomats in Kabul early Thursday local time suddenly warned American citizens to "immediately" leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats.

The warning came hours after a US defense official had told CNN that officials were alarmed by a "very specific threat stream" about the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which planned to attack crowds outside the airfield.

Inside, thousands of troops are braving testing conditions and intense heat to fill cargo aircraft with US citizens and Afghans who helped American troops and officials and fear gruesome punishment by the Taliban.

The question now is how long the Pentagon will give the evacuation operation before it transitions to a mission to extract thousands of troops and materiel, which could take several days and curtail the departures of noncombatants.