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 fighers 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.