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.
The strike came just two days before the U.S. is set to conclude a massive airlift of tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign civilians and withdraw the last of its troops, ending America's longest war with the Taliban back in power.
A rocket struck a neighborhood just northwest of Kabul's airport on Sunday, killing a child, an Afghan police chief said.
After an Islamic State affiliate's suicide attack that killed over 180 people, the Taliban increased its security around the airfield as Britain ended its evacuation flights Saturday.
President Joe Biden has vowed to keep up airstrikes against the Islamic extremist group and warned another attack was “highly likely” and the State Department called the threat “specific” and “credible.”
The Pentagon said the remaining contingent of U.S. forces at the airport, now numbering fewer than 4,000, had begun their final withdrawal ahead of Biden's deadline for ending the evacuation on Tuesday.
After getting briefed on a U.S. drone mission in eastern Afghanistan that the Pentagon said killed two members of the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate early Saturday, Biden said Saturday the extremists can expect more.
“This strike was not the last,” Biden said in a statement. “We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.”
The Taliban deployed extra forces around Kabul's airport Saturday to prevent large crowds from gathering after the suicide attack two days earlier.
New layers of checkpoints sprang up on roads leading to the airport, some manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with Humvees and night-vision goggles captured from Afghan security forces.
Areas where large crowds of people have gathered over the past two weeks in hopes of fleeing the country following the Taliban takeover were largely empty.
Also on Saturday, Britain began bringing its troops home from Afghanistan, as a Royal Air Force plane carrying soldiers landed at the RAF Brize Norton airbase northwest of London. The troops are part of a contingent of 1,000 that has been based in Kabul to help run the airlift.
Flights bringing U.K. citizens and Afghans have largely ended, though the head of the armed forces, Gen. Nick Carter, said there would be a “very few” more on Saturday.
Britain says it has evacuated more than 14,500 people from Kabul in the past two weeks, but that as many as 1,000 Afghans entitled to come to the U.K. have been left behind.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised Friday to “shift heaven and earth” to get more people from Afghanistan to Britain by other means, though no concrete details have been offered.
A U.S. airstrike killed a member of the Islamic State's affiliate in Afghanistan in retaliation for a suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 13 Americans and scores of Afghans.
A U.S. defence official told AP that the drone strike came as a further attack was being planned by the militant group against the airport, where a mass evacuation of refugees is currently underway.
President Joe Biden has set a deadline of Tuesday for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, 20 years after the American-led invasion of the country following the September 11 attacks in 2001.
U.S. Central Command said the drone strike was conducted in Nangahar province against an IS member believed to be involved in planning attacks in Kabul.
It is not clear if the individual was involved directly in the suicide bombing outside the gates of Kabul airport on Thursday, as crowds of Afghans desperately tried to join the ongoing evacuation.
Biden declared Thursday that perpetrators of the attack would not be able to hide.
“We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said.
But officials have also warned that further attacks are likely as the U.S. withdrawal progresses.
"[The Pentagon] advised the president and vice president that another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
On Friday, the self-proclaimed acting president of Afghanistan told Euronews that Taliban rule won’t last long because their methods are “unacceptable to the people”.
Amrullah Saleh was vice president before the Taliban takeover earlier this month, which prompted President Ashraf Ghani to flee.
Saleh, speaking from the Panjshir Valley, an area of the country not currently under Taliban control, told Euronews: “The law of the Taliban is Islamic Emirate, unacceptable to the people of Afghanistan and the election of a leader by a group is unacceptable. It is impossible for Taliban rule to last long in Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Italy’s final evacuation flight of refugees from Afghanistan has landed at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport.
The Italian Air Force C-130J with 58 Afghan citizens aboard arrived Saturday morning, some 17 hours after it departed from the Kabul airport and after a planned stopover.
Also aboard were Italy’s consul and a NATO diplomat who had coordinated evacuations at the Kabul airport.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy was prepared to work with the United Nations and with countries bordering Afghanistan on what he described as the “more difficult phase.”