Taliban fighters have captured the major city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, sending Afghan forces fleeing, and drawing closer to Kabul as Western countries scramble to evacuate their citizens from the capital.
It was the latest important capture for the hardline militants, who have swept through the country in recent weeks as US-led forces withdrew. Kabul and Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, are now the only big cities not in Taliban hands.
US President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the United States was sending 5000 troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an "orderly and safe" drawdown of US military personnel. A US defence official said the deployment included 1000 newly approved troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Security forces from Mazar-i-Sharif were escaping towards the Uzbekistan border, Afzal Hadid, head of the Balkh provincial council, told Reuters. The city appeared to have fallen largely without a fight, although sporadic clashes were continuing nearby, he said.
Afghan militia leader Atta Mohammad Noor said in a Facebook post that control of Balkh province, where Mazar-I-Sharif is located, had been handed to the Taliban due to a "conspiracy."
Noor, former governor of Balkh, said the Taliban sought to trap him and Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, another pro-government militia leader. The two former warlords escaped along with other provincial officials, he said, without disclosing their location.
"Unfortunately, as result of a large, organised and cowardly conspiracy, all government facilities and government forces were handed over to the Taliban," Noor wrote, adding: "They wanted to trap my friend Marshal Abdul Rashid and me, but they did not succeed."
As night fell in Kabul on Saturday, hundreds of people were huddled in tents or in the open in the city, by roadsides or in car parks, a resident said. "You can see the fear in their faces," he said.
Many Afghans have fled the provinces for the capital, driven out by fighting and fearful of a return to hardline Islamist rule, as resistance from Afghan government forces crumbles. President Ashraf Ghani held talks with local leaders and international partners but gave no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign as a condition for any ceasefire.
His focus was "on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people", he said in a brief televised address, adding that security and defence forces were being consolidated.
Qatar, which has been hosting so-far inconclusive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, said it had urged the insurgents to cease fire during a meeting with their representatives on Saturday.
Earlier the Taliban, facing little resistance, took Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province and 70 km south of Kabul, according to a local provincial council member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Police officials however denied reports that the Taliban had advanced closer to Kabul from Pul-e-Alam, which is a staging post for a potential assault on the capital.
An Afghan government official confirmed on Friday that Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the heartland of the Taliban, was under the militants' control as US-led forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war launched after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001. Outside Kabul, the only major city now still in government control is Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east.
American troops have begun flying in to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy personnel and other civilians, a US official said on condition of anonymity. Visa applications at embassies were running in the tens of thousands, officials said, and Washington was asking countries to temporarily house Afghans who worked for the US government.
In a statement late on Saturday, the Taliban said its gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people and sought to reassure both Afghans and foreigners that they would be safe. The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) "once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honour and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation. No one should worry about their life," it said, adding that diplomats and aid workers would also face no problems.
Hospitals were struggling to cope with the numbers of people wounded in the fighting, with 17,000 treated in July and the first week of August in facilities supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the aid agency said.
The explosion in fighting has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of gains in human rights, especially for women. Canada said it would resettle more than 20,000 vulnerable Afghans including women leaders, human rights workers and reporters to protect them from Taliban reprisals.
AAP with The Project