KABUL (Reuters)—Taliban insurgents entered Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan on Sunday, bringing the Islamist militants close to taking over the country two decades after they were overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion.
It was not yet clear where Ghani was headed or how exactly power would be transferred following the Taliban‘s lightning sweep in recent weeks across Afghanistan. Their advance accelerated as U.S. and other foreign troops withdrew in line with President Joe Biden's desire to end America's longest war, launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
By evening, the Taliban said they had taken control of most of the districts around the outskirts of the capital.
The U.S. Embassy said there were reports the capital's airport, where diplomats, officials and other Afghans had fled, had come under fire.
"The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place," an embassy security alert said.
Hundreds of Afghans, some of them government ministers and government employees and also other civilians including many women and children, crowded in the terminal desperately waiting for flights out.
"The airport is out of control… the (Afghan) government just sold us out," said an official at the scene who declined to be named for security reasons.
American diplomats were flown from their embassy by helicopter to the airport as Afghan forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others for billions of dollars, melted away.
Ghani's destination was uncertain: a senior Interior Ministry official said he had left for Tajikistan, while a Foreign Ministry official said his location was unknown and the Taliban said it was checking his whereabouts.
Some local social media users branded him a "coward" for leaving them in chaos.
Taliban fighers reached Kabul "from all sides", the senior Interior Ministry official told Reuters and there were some reports of sporadic gunfire around the city.
A Kabul hospital said more than 40 people wounded in clashes on the outskirts were being treated, but there did not appear to be major fighting.
Insurgents entered the presidential palace and took control of it, two senior Taliban commanders in Kabul said. The Afghan government did not confirm this.
During Sunday, the government's acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, said power would be handed over to a transitional administration. He tweeted: "There won't be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover".
However, two Taliban officials told Reuters there would be no transitional government. The Taliban said earlier it was waiting for Ghani's Western-backed government to surrender peacefully.
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, 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 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."
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.
U.S. officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopters to the airport from its embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district. A NATO official said several European Union staff had moved to a safer location in Kabul.
U.S. troops were still arriving at the airport, amid concern heavily armed Afghan security contractors could "mutiny" because they have not been assured Washington is committed to evacuating them, a person familiar with the issue said.
European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were moving their diplomats to the airport and working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he had discussed the rapidly evolving situation with Britain, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier in Washington that the embassy was being moved to the airport and has 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 to 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.
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.
"Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives," a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters.
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.
Iran said it had set up camps along the Afghan border to provide temporary refuge to Afghans fleeing their country.
Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 U.S. troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an "orderly and safe" drawdown of military personnel.
Biden said 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."
He 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.
"An endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me," Biden said on Saturday.
(Reporting by Kabul and Washington bureausWriting by Andrew Cawthorne and Philippa FletcherEditing by William Mallard, Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)