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Evacuation flights resume at Kabul airport as Biden defends US withdrawal

Evacuation flights resume at Kabul airport as Biden defends US withdrawal

Military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan resumed early on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands of people desperate to flee after the Taliban seized the capital.

The number of civilians at the airport had thinned out, a Western security official at the facility told Reuters, a day after chaotic scenes in which U.S. troops fired to disperse crowds and people clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

"Runway in Kabul international airport is open. I see airplanes landing and taking off," Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO's civilian representative said on Twitter.

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By the afternoon, at least 12 military flights had taken off, a diplomat at the airport said.

Under a US troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

US forces took charge of the airport, their only way to fly out of the country, on Sunday, as the militants were winding up a dramatic week of advances across the country with their takeover of the capital without a fight.

Flights were suspended for much of Monday, when at least five people were killed, witnesses said, although it was unclear whether they had been shot or crushed in a stampede.

Media reported two people fell to their deaths from the underside of a U.S. military aircraft after it took off, crashing to their deaths on roofs of homes below.

A US official told Reuters U.S. troops had killed two gunmen who had appeared to have fired into the crowd at the airport.

Despite the scenes of bedlam in Kabul, U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war - the nation's longest - that he described as costing more than $1 trillion.

But a video on Monday of hundreds of desperate Afghans trying to clamber onto a U.S. military plane as it was about to take-off could haunt the United States, just as a photograph in 1975 of people scrambling to get on a helicopter on the roof of a building in Saigon became emblematic of the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.

Biden insisted he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly in what he called Afghanistan's civil war or follow through on an agreement to withdraw negotiated by his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said. "After 20 years I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That's why we're still there."

Facing a barrage of criticism, from even his own diplomats, he blamed the Taliban's takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army's unwillingness to fight.

The Taliban captured Afghanistan's biggest cities in days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence, in many cases after demoralised government forces surrendered despite years of training and equipping by the United States and others.

40,000 WOUNDED

The Taliban began their push in the spring with a surge of attacks on government positions in the countryside and targeted killings in cities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 40,000 people wounded by weapons had been treated at facilities it supports in June, July and August, 7,600 of them since Aug. 1.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the hasty pullout of U.S. troops had a "serious negative impact," China's state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability. read more

U.S. forces are due to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month under the deal with the Taliban that hinged on their promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab underlined that Taliban vow, saying while Afghanistan must never be used to launch attacks, the West would have to be pragmatic in its relations with the Taliban and try to be a positive influence.

President Ashraf Ghani left the country on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

That same day, some 640 Afghans crammed into a U.S. C-17 transport aircraft to fly to Qatar, a photo taken inside the plane showed.

The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of "chilling" curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls.

During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

Former Afghan faction commander and prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said he would travel to Doha to meet Taliban officials there, along with former President Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister and peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the group would respect the rights of women and minorities "as per Afghan norms and Islamic values".

But many Afghans are sceptical and fear round-ups of anti-Taliban politicians and activists.