KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) — With thousands of desperate Afghans and foreigners crowding into Kabul's airport in the hope of fleeing Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers, pressure grew on U.S. president Joe Biden on Monday to extend the deadline for the evacuation operation.
Biden on Sunday warned that the evacuation was going to be "hard and painful" and he said a lot could still go wrong. U.S. troops might stay beyond their Aug. 31 deadline to oversee the evacuation, he said.
That concern was underlined on Monday morning when a firefight erupted at the airport on Monday between Afghan guards and unidentified gunmen. German and U.S. forces were also involved, the German military said.
Britain and France were among those calling for the deadline to be eased. But a Taliban official said foreign forces had not sought an extension and it would not be granted if they had.
And a local Taliban militant, speaking to a large crowd in Kabul on Monday, urged Afghans to remain in the country.
"Where has our honor gone to? Where has our dignity gone to?" the unidentified militant said. "We will not let the Americans continue to be here. They will have to leave this place. Whether it is a gun or a pen, we will fight to our last breath."
The Taliban seized power just over a week ago as the United States and its allies were withdrawing troops after a 20-year war launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants in 2001.
Panicked Afghans and foreigners have thronged the airport for days, clamoring to catch a flight out before the U.S.-led forces complete their pullout by the end of the month.
They fear reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Sunni Muslim group enforced when it held power from 1996 to 2001.
Twenty people have been killed in the chaos, most in shootings and stampedes, as U.S. and international forces try to bring order. One member of the Afghan forces was killed and several wounded in Monday's clash, the U.S. military said.
Germany said on Monday it had airlifted almost 3,000 people originating from 43 countries from Kabul airport, including about 1,800 Afghans.
The Taliban have deployed fighters outside the airport, where they have also tried to help enforce some kind of order.
Biden said the security situation in Afghanistan was changing rapidly and remained dangerous.
"Let me be clear, the evacuation of thousands from Kabul is going to be hard and painful" and would have been "no matter when it began," Biden said in a briefing at the White House on Sunday.
"We have a long way to go and a lot could still go wrong."
British prime minister Boris Johnson will urge Biden this week to extend the deadline. His spokesperson said Britain still wanted to fly out thousands of people.
"We will continue to run our evacuation process as long as the security situation allows," the spokesperson said, adding that it would not be possible for British evacuations to continue once U.S. troops leave.
France's foreign minister said on Monday more time was needed beyond Aug. 31 to complete evacuations from Afghanistan. "We are concerned about the Aug. 31 deadline set by the United States," Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
The chaos at the airport is also disrupting shipments of aid going in to Afghanistan.
The World Health Organization said 500 tons of medical supplies due to be delivered this week were stuck because Kabul airport was closed to commercial flights, Richard Brennan, WHO regional emergency director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, told Reuters.
He said the WHO was calling for empty planes to divert to its storage hub in Dubai to collect the supplies on their way to pick up evacuees in Afghanistan.
Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government, while their forces focus on the last pockets of opposition.
Taliban fighters had re-taken three districts in the northern province of Baghlan which opposition forces briefly captured and had surrounded opposition forces in the Panjshir valley, an old stronghold of Taliban opponents northeast of Kabul.
"The enemy is under siege in Panjshir," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.
Anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Massoud said on Sunday that he hoped to hold talks with the Taliban but that his forces in Panjshir—remnants of army units, special forces and militiamen—were ready to fight.
Zabihullah also said the Taliban wanted to "solve the problem through talks."
(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Rupam Jain, Caroline Copley, Michelle Nichols, Simon Lewis, Ju-min Park, Emma Farge; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Nick Macfie and Angus MacSwan)