US carries out Afghanistan drone strike as evacuation effort enters final stretch

ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, has claimed that an ISIS militant carried out Thursday’s suicide attack at an airport gate, but provided no evidence to support the claim. US officials have said the group was likely behind the bombing.

Biden approved the strike on the ISIS-K planner, according to an official familiar with the matter.

“U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner. The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan,” spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said Friday. “Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”

The identity of the person targeted in the US airstrike has not yet been confirmed.

A defense official told CNN that the target of the drone strike who was killed was believed to be “associated with potential future attacks at the airport.” The US had located him and “we had sufficient eyes on and sufficient knowledge” to strike, the official said. “He was a known entity.”

The official said the US was not calling the person a “senior” ISIS-K operative.

Another defense official told CNN that the target of the drone strike was in a compound in the Jalalabad area of Nangarhar. The source said surveillance continued on the compound until the target’s wife and children left and then the US carried out the strike.

The US Embassy in Kabul on Friday again warned US citizens at a number of gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport to “leave immediately,” citing security threats. The alert advised US citizens “to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates.”

Taliban Badri fighters, a "special forces" unit, stand guard as Afghans walk through the main entrance gate of Kabul airport on Saturday.

‘Nothing they can do’

Flights could be seen taking off Saturday but it was unclear how many people were being allowed into the airport.

An eyewitness told CNN he saw Taliban members fire shots in the air outside the main Kabul airport entrance gate on Saturday morning to disperse crowds that had gathered again in attempts to flee Afghanistan.

US officials warn of possible threats to the US in wake of Afghanistan attack and mass evacuation

A source directly familiar with the situation at the airport told CNN that only a skeletal US diplomatic crew of staff to process evacuees would remain after the bulk expected to be departed in the next 24 hours.

The source said that some individuals or small families were still “being pulled through the gates somehow” as of Saturday. The gates have been closed for days. The numbers getting on were thought to be “a very tiny subset, consisting of single people or families.” The US has said they had alternate routes to the airport.

The source added that US airport staff were “still getting hit up by tons of people trying to get in. All Afghans, either SIV or no credentials. They feel bad but there is literally nothing they can do.”

SIV refers to the Special Immigrant Visa program established more than a decade ago to provide a pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government.

The source added it was unclear if the evacuation of local embassy employees had finished, but that hundreds more had been reported as having got to the airport and that “hundreds more have departed for interim locations.”

US and other Western countries have been racing to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies ahead of an August 31 deadline, after the Taliban retook control of the country — prompting fears of deadly reprisals against anyone linked to international forces.

The Pentagon said the US was “still planning on ending this mission at the end of the month,” representing a final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Relatives of a man who was killed in the Kabul airport bomb carry his body during his funeral on Martyrs Hill on the outskirts of the Afghan capital on Friday.

Evacuee numbers slowing

The US has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of about 111,900 people from Afghanistan since August 14, according to the White House.

Approximately 6,800 people were evacuated from 3 a.m. ET Friday to 3 a.m. ET Saturday, a White House official said.

Kabul airport attack shows Afghanistan is still a terror hotbed that the Taliban will struggle to control

Those evacuations were carried out by both US military and coalition flights, with 32 US military flights taking approximately 4,000 people and 34 coalition flights carrying 2,800 people, the White House said.

The latest numbers are noticeably smaller than those from recent days, something White House press secretary Jen Psaki said should be expected in the final days of the mission.

“That is a result of the retrograde process that needs to take place, but also, I will note that, of course, force protection is front and center and is vital to the mission,” Psaki said at Friday’s White House press briefing.

Approximately 12,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan during the same time period on the previous day.

Following Thursday’s attack, Biden’s national security team told him that “another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul Airport,” Psaki said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Friday that “there are approximately 500 American citizens we are currently working with who want to leave and with whom we are communicating directly to facilitate their evacuations.”

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on Friday in Dulles, Virginia, after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

US allies conclude evacuations

The head of the United Kingdom’s armed forces, Gen. Nick Carter, said the UK’s effort to evacuate Afghan civilians from the country would end Saturday, to be followed by the withdrawal of the remaining UK troops.

“It’s gone as well as it could do in the circumstances… but we haven’t been able to bring everybody out and that has been heartbreaking and there have been some very challenging judgements that have had to be made on the ground,” he told BBC Radio 4.

The number left behind who were eligible to be brought to the UK was in the “high hundreds” he said.

The defense spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, John Healey, told Sky News that despite the UK getting more than 14,000 people out of the country, “there are probably 1,000 Afghans who have worked with us over two decades in Afghanistan, helped our troops, our aid workers, our diplomats, that we promised to protect, but we’re leaving behind.”

Healey urged UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene to offer hope of rescue to those Afghans left behind.

France announced the end of its evacuation effort Friday but vowed to “stand by the Afghan people” after August 31, in a statement released by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly.

The country had evacuated nearly 3,000 people since August 15, the statement said. An extra 1,500 Afghans who had worked for France were evacuated before August 15 in anticipation of the current crisis, it added.

Italy’s Defense Ministry also said Friday that it had concluded its military evacuations of Afghan nationals out of Kabul.

The last flight took off Friday evening carrying 58 Afghan citizens, with the remainder of those on board Italian service members involved in the evacuation process, the ministry said. Since June, 5,011 people have been evacuated in total, of whom 4,980 are Afghan citizens, it said.

Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and Spain have all said their evacuation missions ended or were scheduled to end on Friday.

CNN’s Jamie Crawford, Oren Liebermann, Ivana Kottasova, Jeremy Diamond, Kate Sullivan, Kaitlan Collins, Sandi Sidhu, Saskya Vandoorne, Hada Messia and Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.

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