The US military carried out a drone strike against what it said was an ISIS-K planner in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, amid warnings of possible further terror attacks targeting the last-ditch US evacuation effort from Kabul.
The desperate mission to airlift US citizens and Afghans who assisted US forces and officials from the country by the end of the month is now in its final phase.
According to locals in the area where the strike was carried out Friday night, at least three people were killed – a man, a woman and a child – and several people were injured.
However, the US Defense Department said in a briefing Saturday that two “high-profile” ISIS-K (Islamic State- Khorasan) targets were killed in the strike, and one other was injured.
The US knew of zero civilian casualties, said Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, on Friday.
Exclusive video and interviews, obtained by CNN directly from Afghan reporters at the scene, show a small point of impact as well as heavy shrapnel damage on surrounding walls of a compound that was hit.
A rickshaw in the courtyard was severely damaged, and there was also some damage to rooms inside the house.
“We saw that rickshaws were burning,” one man said. “Children and women were wounded and one man, one boy and one woman had been killed on the spot. We tried to find people to bring something so that we can carry or transport the wounded.”
Eventually, he said, “Two rickshaws came, and we transported the wounded in that. And then beyond the police headquarters an ambulance arrived, and the Taliban arrived, and then we carried the dead.”
The drone strike in Nangarhar came a day after US President Joe Biden vowed to retaliate for a terrorist attack Thursday that killed 13 US service members and at least 170 others outside Kabul’s international airport.
The remains of those service members are en route to the States, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
Twenty US Marines who were injured in the attack are being treated at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Ramstein Air Base commander Brig. Gen. Joshua M. Olson said at a press conference Saturday.
The man targeted in the drone strike was believed to be “associated with potential future attacks at the airport,” a US defense official told CNN Saturday.
The US located him and “had sufficient eyes on and sufficient knowledge” to strike, the official said, adding that he “was a known entity” but that the US is not calling him a “senior” ISIS-K operative.
US and other Western countries have been racing to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies ahead of an August 31 deadline, after the Taliban retook control of the country – prompting fears of deadly reprisals against anyone linked to international forces.
Those efforts, hampered by fears of further security threats at the airport, now appear to be in their closing stages.
The last UK military flight dedicated to civilian evacuees has now left Kabul airport, a UK defense source told CNN. A small number of civilians may make it on to remaining UK flights, the source added.
Earlier Saturday the head of the UK’s armed forces, Gen. Nick Carter, told BBC Radio 4 that the UK’s effort to evacuate Afghan civilians would end “during the course” of Saturday. “And then it will be necessary to bring our troops out on the remaining aircraft,” he said.
UK Ambassador to Afghanistan Laurie Bristow, said in a video from Kabul posted to Twitter that Britain “hasn’t forgotten the people who still need to leave” Afghanistan and would “continue to do everything we can to help them.”
Carter said the number left behind who were eligible to be brought to the UK was in the “high hundreds.”
“It’s gone as well as it could do in the circumstances… but we haven’t been able to bring everybody out and that has been heartbreaking and there have been some very challenging judgments that have had to be made on the ground,” he said.
Several other allied nations concluded their evacuation operations on Friday, among them France and Italy.
Minimal US diplomatic crew left
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how many Afghans remain at the airport desperate to find a flight out.
An eyewitness told CNN he saw Taliban members fire shots in the air outside the main Kabul airport entrance gate on Saturday morning to disperse crowds that had gathered again in attempts to flee Afghanistan.
A source directly familiar with the situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport told CNN that only a skeletal US diplomatic crew of staff to process evacuees would remain after the bulk expected to be departed in the next 24 hours.
The source said that some individuals or small families were still “being pulled through the gates somehow” as of Saturday. The gates have been closed for days. The numbers getting on were thought to be “a very tiny subset, consisting of single people or families.” The US has said they had alternate routes to the airport.
The source added that US airport staff were “still getting hit up by tons of people trying to get in. All Afghans, either SIV or no credentials. They feel bad but there is literally nothing they can do.”
SIV refers to the Special Immigrant Visa program established more than a decade ago to provide a pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government.
The source added it was unclear if the evacuation of local embassy employees had finished, but that hundreds more had been reported as having got to the airport and that “hundreds more have departed for interim locations.”
The US Embassy in Kabul on Friday again warned US citizens at a number of gates at the city’s airport to “leave immediately,” citing security threats. The alert advised US citizens “to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates.”
The Pentagon said the US was “still planning on ending this mission at the end of the month,” representing a final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, has claimed that an ISIS militant carried out Thursday’s suicide attack at an airport gate, but provided no evidence to support the claim. US officials have said the group was likely behind the bombing.
Evacuee numbers slowing
The US has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of about 111,900 people from Afghanistan since August 14, according to the White House.
Approximately 6,800 people were evacuated from 3 a.m. ET Friday to 3 a.m. ET Saturday, a White House official said.
Those evacuations were carried out by both US military and coalition flights, with 32 US military flights taking approximately 4,000 people and 34 coalition flights carrying 2,800 people, the White House said.
The latest numbers are noticeably smaller than those from recent days, something White House press secretary Jen Psaki said should be expected in the final days of the mission.
“That is a result of the retrograde process that needs to take place, but also, I will note that, of course, force protection is front and center and is vital to the mission,” Psaki said at Friday’s White House press briefing.
Approximately 12,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan during the same time period on the previous day.
Italy’s Defense Ministry also said Friday that it had concluded its military evacuations of Afghan nationals out of Kabul. Since June, 5,011 people have been evacuated in total, of whom 4,980 are Afghan citizens, it said.
Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and Spain have all said their evacuation missions ended or were scheduled to end on Friday.
France announced the end of its evacuation effort Friday but vowed to “stand by the Afghan people” after August 31, in a statement released by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly.
The country had evacuated nearly 3,000 people since August 15, the statement said. An extra 1,500 Afghans who had worked for France were evacuated before August 15 in anticipation of the current crisis, it added.
France says it’s staying in Iraq
French President Emmanuel Macron has been in Iraq, at the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, along with Middle Eastern leaders.
At a press conference, Macron said France will keep troops in Iraq “to fight against terrorism” regardless of whether the Americans withdraw.
He also said France “will stay engaged in the international coalition as long as the Iraqi government wishes so, and the security of Iraq depends on it.”
Macron was referring to “The Global Coalition Against Daesh [ISIS]” formed by the United States in 2014.
Later on Saturday, he is set to travel to Erbil to meet with the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani.
CNN’s Jamie Crawford, Oren Liebermann, Niamh Kennedy, Atika Shubert, Saskya Vandoorne, Hada Messia, Duarte Mendonca and Kelly Murray contributed to this report.