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Gunfire fills the air in Kabul as Taliban celebrate airport takeover

Taliban Spokesman Says Afghanistan Has ‘gained Complete Independence’ As Fighters Enter Hangars Occupied By US Forces Hours Earlier

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As the last US military transport aircraft lifted off from Kabul airport on Monday night, marking the end of two decades of American troops in Afghanistan, celebratory gunfire rang out the capital as Taliban fighters revelled in the end of America’s longest war.

Just two weeks earlier, Taliban fighters had taken Kabul and toppled the government without force as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. It was a rise to power so swift that it had taken the US and even Taliban leadership by surprise.

After the US announced its departure just before midnight local time, an exit made with little fanfare and no official handover, Taliban spokesperson Qari Yusuf said in statement: “The last US soldier has left Kabul airport and our country gained complete independence.”

The mood was one of jubilance from Afghanistan’s new rulers, marking their return to power 20 years after the first Taliban regime was ousted by the 2001 US military invasion. Footage from inside the city showed loud gunfire ringing out, lighting up the night sky as Taliban fighters fired into air.

“The last five aircraft have left, it’s over!” said Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter stationed at Kabul’s international airport. “I cannot express my happiness in words … Our 20 years of sacrifice worked.”

“The world should have learned their lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream posted by a militant.

The Taliban moved in quickly to seize the airport, which had been controlled by US and foreign forces for the past two weeks as they hurriedly attempted to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies before the withdrawal deadline on 31 August.

Video shot by a reporter for the LA Times showed Taliban fighters, wearing US army uniforms, entering a former US military hangar at the airport and inspecting the US military helicopters and making an inventory of equipment left behind.

The US said it had disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft and made the so-called C-RAMS (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System) inoperable, so they could not be used again. The military left some equipment for the Taliban in order to run the airport, including two firetrucks, some front-end loaders and aircraft staircases.

According to photos and reports, Taliban fighters began securing the perimeter of the airport, which for the past two weeks had been a place of chaos and violence. The heavy barricades, which had been keeping back crowds of thousands of desperate people attempting to board an evacuation flight, were removed and the airport gates began to be unlocked.

At one point, Taliban leaders symbolically walked across the runway, marking their victory.

“After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province cradling a Kalashnikov rifle. “They have left and now our country is free.”

He added: “It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability.”

Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, similarly praised the takeover in an online video early Tuesday, saying: “Thank God all the occupiers have left our country completely”.

At the airport’s eastern gate, a handful of Afghans still tried their luck to get in, hoping for any flight. As of now, however, commercial airlines aren’t flying into the airport and it remains unclear who will take over managing the country’s airspace.

Several of those trying to come into the airport came from Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan that saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting.

One of the men, Hekmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, carried paperwork he said showed he worked as a translator. Hekmatullah said he had waited four days for an opportunity to leave. “But now I don’t know what chances I have,” he said.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said the US would work with Turkey and Qatar – where US diplomatic operations now reside – to help them get the Kabul airport up and running again.

“This would enable a small number of daily charter flights, which is a key for anyone who wants to depart from Afghanistan moving forward,” he said.

Talks are ongoing as to who will now run Kabul airport. The Taliban have asked Turkey to handle logistics while they maintain control of security, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not yet accepted that offer. It was not immediately clear which airlines would agree to fly in and out of Kabul.

In an interview with Afghan state television, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban was assessing the “technical and logistical needs of the airport”.

“If we are able to fix everything on our own, then we won’t need any help. If there is need for technical or logistics help to repair the destruction, then we might ask help from Qatar or Turkey,” he said.

Blinken said up to 200 Americans had been left behind who wanted to leave. They and thousands of desperate Afghans who couldn’t get out must rely on the Taliban to allow their departure.

“We have no illusion that any of this will be easy, or rapid,” said Blinken.

The UN security council adopted a resolution on Monday, requiring the Taliban to honour a commitment to let people freely leave Afghanistan in the days ahead, and to grant access to the UN and other aid agencies.

But they did not agree to call for the creation of a “safe zone” in Kabul, as envisaged by French president Emmanuel Macron.

Kabul airport is now without air traffic control services, and US civil aircraft are barred from operating over the country unless given prior authorisation, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday.

The FAA said in a statement that “due to both the lack of air traffic services and a functional civil aviation authority in Afghanistan, as well as ongoing security concerns, US civil operators, pilots, and US-registered civil aircraft are prohibited from operating at any altitude over much of Afghanistan.”