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Pentagon says 12 US service members killed in Kabul explosions

Twelve Americans were killed on Thursday in two suicide bombings around the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been working to evacuate thousands of U.S. and Afghan civilians.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, confirmed to reporters that 12 U.S. service members were killed and 15 others were injured. Numerous Afghan civilians were also killed and injured by the blasts, which were determined to be carried out by ISIS fighters, McKenzie said.

Multiple outlets reported that at least 60 Afghans were killed and more than 140 injured in the attacks, for which ISIS later claimed responsibility.

“We have put more than 5,000 U.S. service members at risk to save as many civilians as we can. It’s a noble mission, and today we have seen firsthand how dangerous that mission is,” McKenzie said. “ISIS will not deter us from accomplishing the mission. I assure you of that.”

One of the explosions took place just outside one of the gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport where U.S. personnel are processing individuals before boarding evacuation flights. A second explosion took place near the Barton Hotel, which is directly adjacent to the airfield.

“The attack on the Abby gate was followed by a number of ISIS gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces,” McKenzie said.

He explained U.S. forces processing individuals just outside the airport had to be able to physically touch those seeking access for safety purposes, increasing the risk for U.S. forces on the front lines to potential terrorist attacks.

The “working assumption” is the suicide bomber was being searched by troops at the gate when they detonated their explosives, he said.

McKenzie added that the ongoing threat from ISIS is “extremely real” and Defense officials “believe it is their desire to continue those attacks and we expect those attacks to continue and we’re doing everything we can to prepare for those attacks.”

He also indicated the attacks would not alter the ongoing evacuation mission, which as of Thursday was still set to conclude on Aug. 31.

“We continue to focus on the protection of our forces and the evacuees as the evacuation continues. While we’re saddened by the loss of life, both U.S. and Afghan, we’re continuing to execute the mission,” McKenzie said.

President Biden and Vice President Harris have been briefed on the attacks. Biden’s meeting with the Israeli prime minister, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, was postponed as he monitored events in Afghanistan.

Biden was tentatively scheduled to deliver remarks on the situation in Afghanistan at 5 p.m.

The president, Defense Department officials and lawmakers have in recent days warned of the increasing threat of a terrorist attack near the Kabul airport as thousands of civilians congregated in the hopes of evacuating the country ahead of the withdrawal of American forces on Tuesday.

In an effort to mitigate further casualties, McKenzie said U.S. forces have reached out to the Taliban to widen the security perimeter and close roads around the airport to prevent any vehicle explosions.

Taliban checkpoints on the way to the airport have been providing what McKenzie said was an “outer security cordon around the airfield.”

In the next several hours, he added, the focus will be on preventing further casualties as "typically, the pattern is multiple attacks, and we want to be prepared." Such threats could be “imminent” and could include rocket attacks, vehicle attacks or another vest-wearing suicide bomber.

But no additional troops will be sent into the country as "we assess we have the forces we need to protect ourselves there."

About 5,400 U.S. troops are in Kabul to help evacuate roughly 1,000 Americans still left in Afghanistan, as well as tens of thousands more vulnerable Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban’s harsh rule.

McKenzie said there are 5,000 evacuees on the ramp at the airport awaiting air lift, and troops are still bringing people onto the airfield.

“We just brought a number of buses aboard the airfield over the last couple or three hours. We'll continue to process and flow people out," he noted, adding that "the plan is designed to operate under stress and under attack.”

Should the airport become unsafe for American citizens to travel to “we'll tell them to hold and work other ways to get them to the airport. We'll continue to flow them out until the end of the month," he said.

McKenzie said officials are investigating the attacks further and are “prepared to take action” against the perpetrators.

“If we can find who is associated with this we will go after them,” he said. “We’ve been clear all along that we’re going to retain the right to operate against ISIS in Afghanistan. And we are working very hard right now to determine attribution, to determine who is associated with this cowardly attack ... 24/7 we are looking for them.”

[Source: By Ellen Mitchell and Brett Samuels, The Hill, Washington, 26Aug21]

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