Boris Johnson and other world leaders have received assurances from the Taliban that foreign nationals and those with authorisation to exit Afghanistan will be free to leave, as tensions and bloodshed escalate on the streets of Kabul.
On Sunday US forces launched a military strike against a vehicle said to be carrying “multiple suicide bombers” from Islamic State’s local affiliate who were planning to attack Kabul airport.
According to reports, there were multiple fatalities, including children. The US has said it was “assessing the possibilities” of having killed or injured civilians in the airstrike.
A significant number of British citizens told the Guardian they continued to wait at the airport in the hope of being rescued despite the terror threats and the departure of all UK troops at the weekend.
They sent video footage of several people clasping UK passports and pleading for help. Desperate Afghans have been told to cross the border into neighbouring countries to escape the Taliban takeover.
On Monday, the UN security council is expected to discuss the Taliban’s reassurances – revealed in a statement on Sunday evening – after deepening concerns over the plight of thousands of Afghans with western links who are at their mercy.
France and Britain were expected to table an emergency UN security council resolution calling for any new Afghan government to back a safe zone at Kabul airport to allow evacuation efforts to continue, Emmanuel Macron said, though a Whitehall source claimed the French president’s comments were “premature”.
In a joint statement released on Sunday by the UK government along with the US and more than 90 other countries, it was confirmed that the Taliban had said anyone who wished to leave the country could do so – though the regime’s pledges will be greeted with scepticism.
The joint statement said: “We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorisation from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country.”
Last week, the Taliban caused shockwaves by moving to prevent Afghans from leaving the country, declaring the route to Kabul airport open only to foreigners.
Western forces have been trying to evacuate Afghans who have supported foreign operations as they fear they and their families could be tortured and murdered for working with western powers during the 20-year war.
The Taliban’s latest assurances are part of delicate negotiations as the new regime seeks to work with foreign governments. Johnson said on Sunday that if the regime wanted diplomatic recognition and aid funding, they would have to ensure “safe passage” for those who wanted to leave.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, is expected to use a US-chaired meeting with ministers from Qatar, Turkey, fellow G7 partners and Nato on Monday to stress the importance of ensuring the Taliban stand by their commitment to allow safe passage for foreign nationals and Afghans authorised to enter third countries.
In a further development, Britain is being urged to spearhead an international plea to fund refugee camps in countries bordering Afghanistan. John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, said ministers had failed to involve critical partners in the region to avoid the current crisis despite knowing for months that the withdrawal would happen this year.
“Britain must lead international efforts to get neighbouring countries to set up safe haven camps,” he said. “There has to be hard cash on the table to fund safe haven camps and the countries willing to take them.”
It comes after 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by UK troops over the course of nearly two weeks under Operation Pitting, believed to be the largest evacuation mission since the second world war.
Whitehall sources believe that up to 9,000 other people with links to the UK government could be left behind, however. Those remaining will be expected to reach a third country such as Pakistan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan in order to be resettled in Britain.
The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, who had remained in the country and relocated the embassy to Kabul airport to process as many evacuees as possible, arrived back in the UK on Sunday, landing at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The final flight prompted criticisms from senior military figures over the role of the UK government, which was accused of failing to act on pleas to ensure the safety of Afghans who had helped soldiers.
Gen Lord Dannatt, a former head of the British army, told Times Radio: “Back in July, 45 senior officers wrote to the government … saying there are people we are concerned about and if we don’t do the right thing, their blood will be on our hands. It is unfathomable why it would appear that the government was asleep on watch.”
V Adm Ben Key, the chief of joint operations, who commanded Operation Pitting, admitted there was a “sense of sadness” that not all could be saved.
Speaking at Brize Norton on Sunday morning, he said: “I pay testament to … everything that has been achieved by coalition forces … in the end we know that there are some really sad stories of people who have desperately tried to leave that, no matter how hard our efforts, we have been unsuccessful in evacuating.”
Meanwhile, Col Richard Kemp, the former commander of British soldiers in Afghanistan, told Times Radio that the UK faced the “greatest danger from terrorism since Islamic State was at its height”.
Witnesses on Sunday reported an explosion near Kabul airport and TV footage showed black smoke rising into the sky. Taliban officials confirmed the US account. The strike came three days after a suicide attack at the airport that killed more than 180 people, including at least three British nationals and 13 US Marines.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for the bombing at the airport, one of the most lethal in Afghanistan’s history.
The Taliban condemned the strike, saying it had violated Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said civilians had suffered casualties in the US strike on Sunday and a house had been hit.
The Taliban and US forces have increased security around the airport since Thursday’s attack.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Saturday that Washington believed there were still “specific and credible” threats against the airport.
“We … would expect future attempts,” he said. “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”