Taliban insurgents entered Afghanistan's capital Kabul on Sunday and said they expected to take power within days, promising to moderate their earlier hardline Islamic rule even as foreign diplomats and many locals tried to leave.
American diplomats were evacuated from their embassy by chopper after a lightning advance by the militants, who were poised to run Afghanistan again 20 years after they were toppled by US-led forces following the Sept 11 attacks on the United States.
Taliban fighters were reaching the capital "from all sides", a senior Afghan interior ministry official told Reuters.
However, there were no reports of fighting.
The group was in talks with the Western-backed government for a peaceful surrender, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said.
"Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed," he said in a statement.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a US-based academic and former Afghan interior minister, could be named head of an interim administration in Kabul, three diplomatic sources said, though it was unclear whether the Taliban had agreed.
Known during their past rule for keeping girls out of school and their hardline practice of Islamic law, including punishments of amputation, stoning and hanging, the Taliban appear to be trying to project a more modern face.
#UPDATE The Taliban were on the brink of total victory in #Afghanistan on Sunday, their fighters ordered to wait on the outskirts of the capital #Kabul and the country's interior minister conceding the government was preparing for a "transfer of power" https://t.co/neQxjo8bzB pic.twitter.com/XyFbYqKdhw— AFP News Agency (@AFP) August 15, 2021
Another spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said the group would protect the rights of women, as well as freedoms for media workers and diplomats.
"We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe," Shaheen told the BBC, saying a transfer of power was expected in days.
The ease of the Taliban's advance, despite billions of dollars spent by the United States and others to build up local Afghan government forces, has stunned the world.
Just last week, a US intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months.
There was no immediate word on the situation from President Ashraf Ghani. A palace official said he was in emergency talks with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and officials from the NATO transatlantic alliance.
Power would be handed over to a transitional administration, the government's acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, tweeted on the Tolo news channel. "There won't be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover," he said without elaborating.
عبدالستار میرزکوال، سرپرست وزارت امور داخله، می گوید که بر شهر کابل حمله نخواهد شد و انتقال به شکل مسالمت آمیز صورت خواهد گرفت.— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) August 15, 2021
او می گوید که امنیت کابل مسوولیت نیروهای امنیتی است. pic.twitter.com/Ldxr8cjejV
A tweet from the Afghan presidential palace account said firing had been heard at a number of points around Kabul but that security forces, in coordination with international partners, had control of the city.
Many of 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 by phone. Another said: "People are all going home in fear of fighting."
Afghans had fled the provinces to enter Kabul in recent days, fearing a return to Taliban rule.
Early on Sunday, refugees from Taliban-controlled provinces were seen unloading belongings from taxis and families stood outside embassy gates, while the city's downtown was packed with people stocking up on supplies.
Taliban forces patrol a street in Herat, Afghanistan August 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
Choppers at embassy
US officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopters to the airport from its embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district. More American troops were being sent to help in the evacuations after the Taliban's surge brought the Islamist group to Kabul in a matter of days.
"Core" US team members were working from the airport, a US official said, while a NATO official said several European Union staff had moved to a safer location in the capital.
Earlier on Sunday, the insurgents 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.
"The governor has surrendered to the Taliban," a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters. "Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives."
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.
After US-led forces withdrew the bulk of their remaining troops in the last month, the Taliban campaign accelerated as the Afghan military's defences appeared to collapse.
President Joe Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 US troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an "orderly and safe" drawdown of military personnel. A US defence official said that included 1,000 newly approved troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
The Taliban said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people.
Biden said his administration had told Taliban officials in talks in Qatar that any action that put US personnel at risk "will be met with a swift and strong US military response".
He has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by Aug 31.
"An endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me," Biden said on Saturday.
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