KABUL (Reuters) -Taliban insurgents entered Kabul on Sunday and President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed, bringing the Islamist militants close to taking over the country two decades after they were overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion.
As night fell, local television 1TV reported that multiple explosions were heard in the capital, which had been largely quiet earlier in the day. It said gunfire could be heard near the airport, where foreign diplomats, officials and other Afghans fled, seeking to leave the country.
Aid group Emergency said 80 wounded people had been brought to its hospital in Kabul, which was at capacity, and that it was only admitting people with life-threatening injuries.
It was not yet clear where Ghani was headed or how exactly power would be transferred following the Taliban’s lightning sweep https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/talibans-rapid-advance-across-afghanistan-2021-08-10 across Afghanistan. Their advance accelerated as U.S. and other foreign troops withdrew in line with President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The spokesman for the Taliban’s political office told Al Jazeera TV that the war in Afghanistan is over and that the type of rule and form of new regime will be clear soon.
Insurgents took control of the presidential palace, two senior Taliban commanders in Kabul said. Al Jazeera showed footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the palace with dozens of armed fighters.
The Taliban said they had also taken control of most of the districts around the outskirts of Kabul.
In a Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) post, Ghani said he had left the country to avoid bloodshed and clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul. He did not say where he was.
A senior Interior Ministry official said Ghani had left for Tajikistan. A Foreign Ministry official said his location was unknown and the Taliban said they were checking his whereabouts.
Some local social media users in Kabul branded Ghani a coward for leaving them in chaos.
American diplomats were flown by helicopter to the airport from their embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district as Afghan forces https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-surge-exposes-failure-us-efforts-build-afghan-army-2021-08-15, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
A NATO official said several European Union staff had moved to a safer location in Kabul.
The U.S. Embassy said in a security alert that “the security situation in Kabul is changing quickly,” adding that there were reports the airport had come under fire. Two sources familiar with the situation at the airport could not confirm that.
A source who was at the airport said there were hundreds of desperate Afghans waiting for flights, with some scuffles among people unable to get a place as departures were stopped. Afghan special forces were at the airport, the source said.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices in their imposition of sharia, or Islamic religious law. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-seek-present-moderate-face-they-take-control-afghanistan-2021-08-15, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
“We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC, saying a transfer of power was expected in days.
Many of downtown Kabul’s streets were choked by cars and people either trying to rush home or reach the airport, residents said.
“Some people have left their keys in the car and have started walking to the airport,” one resident told Reuters. Another said: “People are all going home in fear of fighting.”
The Pentagon authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them, a U.S. official said.
European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taliban and all other parties to exercise the utmost restraint, and expressed particular concern about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier in Washington that the embassy was being moved to the airport and had a list of people to get out of harm’s way.
Asked if images of helicopters ferrying personnel were evocative of the United States’ departure from Vietnam in 1975, Blinken told ABC News: “Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon.”
A NATO official said the alliance was helping secure the airport and that a political solution was “now more urgent than ever”.
Russia said it saw no need to evacuate its embassy for the time being. Turkey said its embassy would continue operations.
The insurgents also captured the eastern city of Jalalabad without a fight, giving them control of one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan. They also took over the nearby Torkham border post with Pakistan, leaving Kabul airport the only way out of Afghanistan still in government hands.
A video clip distributed by the Taliban showed people cheering and shouting: “Allahu Akbar” – God is greatest – as a convoy of pickup trucks entered Jalalabad with fighters brandishing machine guns and the white Taliban flag.
Biden said on Saturday that his administration had told Taliban officials in talks in Qatar that any action that put U.S. personnel at risk “will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.”
Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed Biden for what he called a “shameful failure of American leadership.”
“Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” McConnell said in a statement.