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A possible terror attack at the airport could come within “hours”, Britain’s armed forces minister James Heappey warned on Thursday morning – calling the threat “credible and imminent”.
The defence minister described the terror threat to people outside Kabul airport as “lethal” amid concerns over an attack by an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, Isis-K.
“I can’t stress the desperation of the situation enough – the threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal,” Mr Heappey told BBC Breakfast. “We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target.”
The minister told LBC: “I was given lines today for what might happen if the attack happened while I was doing this media round.”
He added: “Daesh, or Islamic State, are guilty of all sorts of evil. The opportunism of wanting to target a major international humanitarian mission is just utterly deplorable, but sadly true to form for an organisation as barbarous as Daesh.”
Mr Heappey said British intelligence about the “imminence and credibility” of an attack by the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan had “grown significantly” this week. “There is real lethality to the plans we’re aware of,” he added.
It is not yet clear how the terror warning might disrupt evacuation plans. Britain was set to make one last push to bring nearly 2,000 Afghan interpreters and staff out of Kabul on Thursday, in what was expected to be the final day of the RAF’s airlift operation.
Officials in London insisted that the timing of the last UK evacuation flight has not yet been decided, but defence secretary Ben Wallace made clear in a conference call with MPs on Wednesday evening that time was running very short.
Mr Wallace was reported to have told MPs that Afghans hoping to seek asylum in the UK would be better off now heading for the border and trying to make their way to a third country such as Pakistan or Iran.
Mr Heappey said there will be 11 more flights out of Kabul on Thursday, but declined to say whether there will be more on Friday, citing the security of troops.
“We will do our best to protect those who are there. There is every chance that as further reporting comes in we may be able to change the advice again and process people anew but there’s now guarantee of that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The window of opportunity to evacuate people is closing. It’s not as simply a case of we can pause, deal with the [terrorist] threat and pick up where we left off.”
The Foreign Office issued an alert on Wednesday evening stating: “Do not travel to Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. If you are in the area of the airport, move away to a safe location and await further advice.”
The US Embassy in Kabul advised US citizens at a number of gates at the airport to “leave immediately”, noting “security threats outside the gates.” The Pentagon said on Wednesday that more than 10,000 people remained at Kabul airport waiting to be evacuated.
EU nations have offered stark warnings about the waning days of a massive airlift to bring people out of Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of the country.
France said it would halt its evacuations on Friday while Denmark said its last flight had already left Kabul’s airport. Danish defence minister Trine Bramsen bluntly warned: “It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul.”
Eight RAF flights managed to lift 1,988 people from Kabul within the past 24 hours, Mr Heappey said, taking the total since the Taliban began its march to power to just over 12,200.