The “overwhelming majority” of people eligible for evacuation from Kabul airport have now left Afghanistan, Boris Johnson said, as he promised the UK government will do “everything we can” to get those remaining out of the country.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, the prime minister said “around 15,000” people have already been evacuated by British troops, but conceded that time is running out.
It comes amid warnings that a “very lethal” terror attack could occur at the airport in a matter of hours.
“In the time we have left, which may be – as I’m sure everybody can appreciate – quite short, we’ll do everything we can to get everybody else,” he said.
Speaking of the airlift operation, the PM added: “We are coming now to the end of this phase in any event.”
UK and US officials have warned of the increasing risk of a terror attack on the airport or refugee handling centres, where thousands await evacuation.
Earlier, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey called on those queuing outside Hamid Karzai International Airport to move to safety amid concerns over an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-K.
The kind of attacks they are known for conducting are suicide bombings, such as a car bomb or an individual blowing themselves up.
The imminent threat has strained the airlift operation to get as many people out of Afghanistan as soon as possible following its takeover by the Taliban.
It is believed many Afghan interpreters and British citizens still need to be evacuated from the country, but the PM told reporters that the “lion’s share” of those eligible for assistance had now been removed from the country.
He did however note that “there will be people who still need help” and said the UK’s commitment to helping those wishing to flee will not end on 31 August – the deadline for British troops to depart in advance of the exit of US forces.
Amid concerns the Taliban could block off exit routes for citizens, the PM warned the group they must allow people to leave Afghanistan to benefit from engagement from the rest of the world.
“What we’re hoping, and this is the key point that the G7 agreed, is that the Taliban understand that if they want to engage with development aid, they want to unlock those billions of funds, they want to have a diplomatic, political relationship with the outside world, then the safe passage for those who want to come out is the key precondition,” the PM said.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Heappey told Sky News eight RAF flights had managed to lift 1,988 people from Kabul within the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, the total number of those evacuated by the US since 14 August, when the operation began, has reached over 95,000.
The prime minister also said the UK government must be “transparent about the risks” posed by ISIS-K.
“I can’t go into the details, clearly. But we have to be mindful of the security of our personnel, but also of the Afghan people who are trying to get out,” he said while on a visit to the Permanent Joint Headquarters in north London, where he met military personnel co-ordinating the evacuation effort.
On Wednesday night, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) warned of an “ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack” at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
And it is reported that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told MPs during a briefing call on the same day that eligible Afghans hoping to seek asylum in the UK would be better off now heading for Afghanistan’s border and trying to make their way to a third country.
Mr Heappey made it very clear that the “window of opportunity to evacuate people is closing”, but would not say when the last flight will depart.
“Well, we still have 11 flights programmed to leave in the next 24 hours,” the defence minister told Sky News.
The PM also did not give a specific timeframe for when the RAF evacuation flights would come to an end.
The end of the evacuation operation is rapidly approaching after US President Joe Biden rejected calls from Mr Johnson and other allies to delay his 31 August withdrawal date for the remaining US troops, who are providing security at Kabul airport.
Analysis, Sam Coates, deputy political editor
I thought it was quite interesting that Boris Johnson was pressed on whether or not once people could not get to the airport they should head to borders.
Now the reason he was asked about that was that Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, made that suggestion on a private call to MPs yesterday.
He suggested that, really, if you’re not already at the airport, head for the border if you want to leave.
Now, Mr Johnson didn’t repeat those exact words of his defence secretary and instead he referred back to the conclusions of a G7 video call which he hosted earlier this week and in which he said that the number one priority for the West was to ensure that people can get out.
And his language was interesting because he started talking about how the Taliban have to take a “reasonable approach” to people who are wanting to leave the country.
And I think that people might just raise one eyebrow at the idea that at this point in time the very great leverage that Mr Johnson said that he had earlier this week has now come down to the prime minister urging the Taliban to be reasonable.
A team of more than 1,000 British troops and diplomats running the UK’s evacuation mission on the ground will need a period of time to pack up their equipment and depart ahead of the final US exit date.
It means that evacuation flights for Afghan civilians desperate to flee the country after the Taliban takeover will have to stop at least a number of days before then.
Meanwhile, shadow minister for Asia Stephen Kinnock told Sky News up to 2,000 interpreters and others could be left behind which is “utterly unforgivable”.
“Serious questions do need to be asked once we have got through this phase of getting as many people out as we can,” he said.
“We understand up to 2,000 interpreters and others who helped our armed forces could be left behind. It is utterly unforgivable.”