Taliban fighters enter Kabul; helicopters land at US Embassy

National/World

The U.S. Embassy buildings are seen in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. The last-minute decision to send 3,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help partially evacuate the U.S. Embassy is calling into question whether President Joe Biden will meet his Aug. 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces. The vanguard of a Marine contingent arrived in Kabul on Friday and most of the rest of the 3,000 are due by Sunday. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban fighters entered the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday as panicked workers fled government offices and helicopters began landing at the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital, further tightening the militants’ grip on the country.

Three Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the fighters were in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman in the capital. The militants themselves didn’t acknowledge the advance, though they earlier took Jalalabad, near a major border crossing with Pakistan, the last major city other than Kabul not under their control.

In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban has defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swathes of the country, even with some air support by the U.S. military.

The rapid shuttle-run flights of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters near the embassy began a few hours later as diplomatic armored SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the movements. However, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy’s roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which typically carry armed troops, later landed near the embassy as well.

The Czech Republic also approved a plan to begin withdrawing their Afghan staff from their embassy after earlier taking their diplomats to Kabul International Airport.

President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke to the nation Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated as well. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving Ghani without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents’ advance.

Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing the future. Some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.

Gunfire erupted at one point, though the Afghan presidency sought to downplayed the shooting.

“The defense and security forces along with the international forces working for the security of Kabul city and the situation is under control,” the presidency said amid the chaos.

Militants posted photos online early Sunday showing them in the governor’s office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.

Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from the province told The Associated Press that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there. Murad said there was no fighting as the city surrendered.

The militants took also Maidan Shar, the capital of Maidan Wardak, on Sunday, only some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Kabul, Afghan lawmaker Hamida Akbari and the Taliban said. Another provincial capital in Khost fell later Sunday to the Taliban, said a provincial council member who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The fall Saturday of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, handed the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan.

Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, two of the warlords Ghani tried to rally to his side days earlier, fled over the border into Uzbekistan on Saturday, said officials close to Dostum. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to publicly speak about his movements.

Writing on Twitter, Noor alleged a “conspiracy” aided the fall of the north to the Taliban, without elaborating.

“Despite our firm resistance, sadly, all the government and the Afghan security forces equipment were handed over to the Taliban as a result of a big organized and cowardly plot,” Noor wrote. “They had orchestrated the plot to trap Marshal Dostum and myself too, but they didn’t succeed.”

In his speech Saturday, Ghani vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the insurgents appear to have little interest in making concessions as they rack up victories on the battlefield.

“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” Ghani said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.

Many Afghans fear a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were forbidden to work or attend school, and could not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.

Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover Saturday in an interview from Mazar-e-Sharif, before it fell.

“There will be no place for women,” said Mazari, who governs a district of 36,000 people near the northern city. “In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes.”

In a statement late Saturday, however, the Taliban insisted their fighters wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses. They also said they’d offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.

“The Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honor and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” the militants said. “In this regard, no one should worry about their life.”

Despite the pledge, those who can afford a ticket have been flocking to Kabul International Airport, the only way out of the country as the Taliban took the last border crossing still held by the government Sunday at Torkham. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told local broadcaster Geo TV that Pakistan halted cross-border traffic there after the militants seized it.

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Akhgar and Faiez reported from Istanbul and Gambrell from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and ​James LaPorta in Washington contributed to this report.

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