KABUL, Aug 15 (Reuters) – President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan on Sunday after Taliban fighters entered the capital Kabul, capping their return to power two decades after being forced out by U.S.-led forces.
American diplomats were evacuated from their embassy by chopper after the militants swept across Afghanistan in days with little resistance from local forces trained and equipped by the United States and others for billions of dollars.
The Taliban urged government officials to stay, but officials said Ghani had left the country.
It was not clear where he was going: a senior Interior Ministry official said he had left for Tajikistan, while a Foreign Ministry official said it was not known what country he would land in.
A representative of the Taliban said the group was checking on Ghani’s 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.
But there was no significant fighting and the group said it was waiting for the Western-backed government to surrender peacefully.
“Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed,” said spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices in their imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law. During their 1996-2001 rule, women were not allowed to work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
Taliban sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
Another spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said the Taliban 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,” he told the BBC, saying a transfer of power was expected in days.
The government’s acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, said power would be handed over to a transitional administration.
There won’t be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover,” he tweeted.
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. 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. An official for the transatlantic NATO alliance 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.
‘AMERICAN PRESENCE UNACCEPTABLE’
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Washington that the embassy was being moved to the airport and has a list of people to get out of harm’s way.
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.
Three diplomatic sources said Ali Ahmad Jalali, a U.S.-based academic and former Afghan interior minister, could be named head of an interim administration in Kabul, though it was unclear whether the Taliban had agreed. In 2009, he was barred from running for president after refusing to give up his U.S. citizenship.
CRITICISM OF BIDEN
President Joe 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 bureaus, Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Alasdair Pal, Cynthia Osterman, Philippa Fletcher; Editing by William Mallard, Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry