US troops fired warning shots Monday as they struggled to manage a chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan hours after the Taliban swept into the capital of Kabul — with five people reportedly killed at the airport amid the pandemonium to flee the war-torn country.
Hours earlier, the insurgents toppled the Western-backed government after a lightning offensive in which they captured one provincial capital after another before entering Kabul.
President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing a stunning end to a two-decade campaign in which the US and its allies had tried to transform Afghanistan, whose security forces collapsed even before the withdrawal of the last American troops.
Thousands of Afghans fearing a return to Taliban rule have been desperately trying to flee the country through Kabul’s international airport, where five people were killed Monday, witnesses told Reuters.
Dramatic footage circulating on social media showed hundreds of people racing across the tarmac as US troops fired warning shots in the air. Another showed a throng pushing and shoving its way up a staircase, trying to board a plane, with some people hanging off railings.
It was not immediately clear how the people died. A US official said troops had fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way onto a military flight that was set to evacuate American diplomats out of the fallen city, according to Reuters.
One witness who was waiting for a flight out for more than 20 hours said it was unclear if the five had been shot or killed in a stampede.
Three bodies could be seen on the ground near what appeared to be an airport side entrance, in video posted on social media, according to Reuters, which said it could not verify the footage. Another witness told the news service that he had also seen five bodies.
Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, who was hoping to board a flight, said she heard shots from outside, where a crowd of men and women were trying to climb aboard a plane.
She said American troops sprayed gas and fired into the air to disperse the crowds after people scaled the walls and swarmed onto the tarmac. Gunfire could be heard in the voice messages she sent to The Associated Press.
By morning morning, Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority issued an advisory saying the “civilian side” of the airport had been “closed until further notice” and that the military controlled the airspace.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said the fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.
“Life, property and honor of none shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said in a message on Twitter.
The Taliban also have said they would stay out of the diplomatic quarter housing the US Embassy complex and the posh villas of US-allied former warlords who have fled the country or gone into hiding.
Taliban officials said they had received no reports of any clashes anywhere in the country.
“The situation is peaceful,” one said, adding that the Taliban controlled 90 percent of state buildings and that the fighters had been told to prevent any damage.
Central Kabul streets were largely deserted early Monday as waking residents pondered their future.
“I’m in a complete state of shock,” Sherzad Karim Stanekzai, who spent the night in his carpet shop to guard it, told Reuters. “I know there will be no foreigners, no international people who will now come to Kabul.”
A State Department spokesperson said early Monday that all US Embassy personnel, including Ambassador Ross Wilson, had been transferred to Kabul airport, mostly by helicopter, to await evacuation.
Western nations, including France, Germany and New Zealand, said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out.
Ghani said on Facebook that he had left the country to avoid clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of Kabul residents. Some social media users described Ghani, who did not disclose his location, a coward for abandoning them.
In the capital, a tense calm set in, with most people hiding in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections and began collecting weapons from civilians.
“We understand people kept weapons for personal safety. They can now feel safe. We are not here to harm innocent civilians,” a Taliban official told Reuters.
Kabul resident Salad Moleskin, director of the MOBY group media company, said on Twitter that Taliban fighters had come to his company to inquire about the weapons kept by his security team, the outlet reported.
There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and there was less traffic than usual on eerily quiet streets as fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city’s main squares.
Many fear chaos, after the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners and the police simply melted away, or a return to the kind of brutal rule the Taliban imposed when it was last in power.
Wahidullah Qadiri, another city resident, said he hoped for peace after decades of war that have claimed the lives of two of his brothers and a cousin.
“We haven’t seen anything but catastrophes and fighting, so we always live with hope for a long-lasting peace,” he said.
With Post wires