Taliban insurgents entered Kabul on Sunday and President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed, bringing the Islamist militants close to taking over the country two decades after they were overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion.
As night fell, local television 1TV reported that multiple explosions were heard in the city, which had been largely quiet earlier in the day. It said gunfire could be heard near the airport, where foreign diplomats, officials and other Afghans fled seeking to leave the country.
Aid group Emergency said 80 wounded people had been brought to its hospital in Kabul, which was at capacity, and that it had restricted admission to people with life-threatening injuries.
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 after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Insurgents entered the presidential palace and took control of it, two senior Taliban commanders in Kabul said. Al Jazeera television later showed footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the palace with dozens of armed fighters.
The Taliban also said they had taken control of most of the districts around the outskirts of the capital.
In a post on Facebook, Ghani said he had left the country to avoid bloodshed and clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul. He did not say where he was.
A senior Interior Ministry official said Ghani had left for Tajikistan. A Foreign Ministry official said his location was unknown and the Taliban said it was checking his whereabouts.
Some local social media users branded Ghani a “coward” for leaving them in chaos.
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.
The U.S. Embassy said in a security alert that “the security situation in Kabul is changing quickly” including at the airport, adding that there were reports the airport had come under fire. Two sources familiar with the situation at the airport could not confirm these reports.
Hundreds of Afghans, some of them government ministers and government employees and also other civilians including many women and children, crowded in the terminal at Kabul airport desperately waiting for flights out.
Taliban fighters reached Kabul “from all sides”, the senior Interior Ministry official told Reuters and there were some reports of sporadic gunfire around the city.
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 the 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 had 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 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. Turkey said its embassy would continue operations.
The insurgents also 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.
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.”
Biden 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.