Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani left the country for neighbouring Tajikistan hours after the Taliban entered the outskirts of capital Kabul on Sunday, Reuters reported, citing an unidentified official of the country’s interior ministry.
The militant group said it was checking on Ghani’s whereabouts and announced that they would move further into Kabul. In a statement, the group asked fighters to go into the city centre to “maintain law and order”. They declared that militants would not enter civilian homes or harass residents of Kabul.
Ghani left even as officials of the Afghan government were in negotiations with the Taliban for a peaceful transition of power in capital Kabul. The two sides held talks after the Taliban entered the outskirts of Kabul but instructed its militants not to enter the Afghanistan capital by force.
Earlier on Sunday, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Al Jazeera that the militants are awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city. When questioned about what kind of agreement the Taliban was seeking, Shaheen said they want an unconditional surrender by the government.
Ghani had urged government forces to maintain security in Kabul after this. “It is our responsibility and we will do it in the best possible manner,” he said in a video released to media. “Anyone who thinks about chaos, plunder or looting will be tackled with force.”
Afghan security forces at the Bagram air base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, had also surrendered on Sunday. The prison on the outskirts of Kabul housed both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
Negotiators representing the Afghan government will travel to Doha, Qatar, on Sunday to meet Taliban representatives, reports said.
Taliban seize more cities
Earlier in the day, Taliban captured the cities of Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif, AFP reported. The militants captured Jalalabad without a fight. “We woke up this morning to the Taliban white flags all over the city,” Jalalabad resident Ahmad Wali was quoted as saying by the news agency.
The fall of Jalalabad gave Taliban the control of one of the main highways in the country that leads to Pakistan’s city of Peshawar, reported Reuters.
An official told Reuters that the Taliban had agreed to allow government officials and security forces to leave the city safely. The official added that the decision to surrender was taken to avoid “casualties and destruction”.
In Mazar-i-Sharif too, the Taliban entered unopposed as security forces escaped, according to Reuters. Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance in the city to support the government forces, fled to Uzbekistan.
As the Taliban closed in on Mazar-i-Sharif, residents could be seen outside automatic teller machines, or ATMs, hoping to withdraw their savings.
“They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration,” said a resident of the city, Atiqullah Ghayor.
After this, Ghani had said that he will not let the “imposed war” on Afghans lead to further killings. Ghani had also vowed not to give up the gains of the past 20 years, referring to the period after United States-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
The Taliban have made rapid advances in large parts of the country over the past few weeks. The militant group now controls more than half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces escalated as foreign troops prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of August. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan in the last month, the BBC reported, citing the United Nations.
US sends more troops to evacuate civilians
United States President Joe Biden on Saturday said he will increase troop deployment by 2,000 to 5,000 to evacuate civilians. He warned the Taliban that any action that would put the country’s personnel or the mission at risk, “will be met with a swift and strong US military response”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with Ghani on Saturday, his spokesperson Ned Price said. “They discussed the urgency of ongoing diplomatic and political efforts to reduce the violence,” Price added.
Meanwhile, Denmark and Norway are shutting down their embassies in Kabul for the time being due to the escalating violence. Finland will also evacuate 130 Afghans, including employees who had worked for the Nordic country, the European Union or NATO on a chartered flight, the agency stated. Finland’s embassy in Kabul, however, will remain open for now.
Meanwhile, an Air India flight with 129 passengers on board reached Delhi from Kabul safely on Sunday evening.