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Reporter In Kabul Describes Airport Explosions


An awful day today in Afghanistan.


Thirteen U.S. service members have been killed in addition to, quote, "a number of Afghan civilians," the result of two blasts - one near the Afghan capital's Karzai Airport or the other at a nearby hotel. Here's what the head of U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, said this afternoon at the Pentagon.


KENNETH MCKENZIE: It was a hard day today. As you know, two suicide bombers, assessed to have been ISIS fighters, detonated in the vicinity of the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport and in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel, which is immediately adjacent. The attack on the Abbey Gate was followed by a number of ISIS gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces.

KELLY: NPR is covering this from multiple places. We start with some of the harrowing moments on the ground in Kabul, which is where we reached reporter Matthieu Aikins of The New York Times this morning. He had managed to get close to the Abbey Gate, the airport entrance we just heard General McKenzie mention. I asked Aikins what he was seeing, what he was learning in the moments after these explosions.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: There was a large crowd of people that had gathered at the Abbey Gate on the south side of the airport, where people were lining up for hours to try to show the foreign soldiers, American soldiers, their documents in the hopes of being allowed in - a desperate hope 'cause very few are allowed in. And in this huge crush of people today, there was at least one blast, dozens of people killed and then more injured. So it was a terrible scene. I arrived afterwards. And the Taliban had blocked off the area. They were trying to clear it, and they said the situation was out of control. There were bodies everywhere. Foreigners had been hit.

KELLY: How close were you able to get? What were you actually able to see firsthand?

AIKINS: We weren't actually able to get up to the blast site, so we were speaking with people who had been there. And we were speaking with the Taliban guards who were quite agitated and trying to clear people from the area, brandishing pipes and lengths of cable.

KELLY: When you got there, it was calm. The Taliban was trying to, as you say, clear the area and restore some form of control.

AIKINS: I wouldn't say it was calm. It was a very tense situation. The Taliban were yelling and trying to forcibly clear people out. And we could hear sounds of firing from inside the airport, as well as sirens.

KELLY: Yeah. Were you able to see - are flights able to take off? What is the impact on the evacuation effort?

AIKINS: There have been flights taking off. We saw flights taking off, so it seems the evacuation is now continuing.

KELLY: So then you tried to go to the hospital where some of the people who were hurt in this attack, in these twin attacks, were taken. What was that road like, trying to get from the airport to the trauma center?

AIKINS: Well, we ride a motorcycle usually to get around traffic, so we were able to get there fairly quickly. I was with a photographer. And there was a big crowd gathered outside the gates of Emergency Hospital, which is a trauma hospital in Kabul. Just ambulance after ambulance was arriving, you know, in front of the anxious eyes of this crowd. And they were wheeling bodies of people, you know, injured people into the hospital, some clearly very badly injured, unconscious. Some of them were children. Their relatives were weeping nearby.

KELLY: Yeah. Does it appear that the hospital has enough doctors, nurses, beds to take care of the sudden flood of people coming in?

AIKINS: This is a mass casualty incident, so it's possible that they may need to use other hospitals as well. They'll triage them. But this is the premier trauma hospital in Kabul, and it's well equipped to deal with this sort of thing.

KELLY: If I may ask, are you - it sounds like you are able to move around. You are able to report freely at this point.

AIKINS: It's a very tense situation in Kabul, which requires a lot of caution, especially around the airport. But the Taliban has, you know, made many assurances to foreign journalists that they will be allowed to continue working. We've met with the spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, who's issued us letters of permission, which we actually used today to get through some of the checkpoints. And they worked, somewhat to our surprise. But so far, we are able to continue working and report the story from the ground.

KELLY: Mr. Aikins, thank you.

AIKINS: My pleasure.

KELLY: That was Matthieu Aikins of The New York Times on the line from Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 27, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous web introduction on this story misspelled Matthieu Aikins' last name as Aikens.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
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