KABUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Taleban insurgents entered Kabul on Sunday (Aug 15) and Western-backed 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 United States-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 aiport, 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 Mr Ghani was headed or how exactly power would be transferred following the Taleban's lightning sweep in recent weeks across Afghanistan.
The militants' advance accelerated as US and other foreign troops withdrew in line with US 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 Taleban commanders in Kabul said. Al Jazeera television later showed footage of what it said were Taleban commanders in the palace with dozens of armed fighters.
The Taleban also said it had taken control of most of the districts around the outskirts of the capital.
In a post on Facebook, Mr Ghani said he had left the country to avoid bloodshed and clashes with the Taleban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul. He did not say where he was.
A senior Interior Ministry official said Mr Ghani had left for Tajikistan. A Foreign Ministry official said his location was unknown and the Taleban said it was checking his whereabouts.
Al Jazeera news channel reported on Sunday, citing a personal bodyguard of the president, that Mr Ghani, his wife, his chief of staff and national security adviser have left the country for Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Some local social media users branded Mr Ghani a "coward" for leaving them in chaos.
Many Afghans fear the Taleban will return to past harsh practices in its imposition of syariah, or Islamic religious, law. During its rule from 1996 to 2001, women were not allowed to work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
The Taleban sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women's rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
Spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the group would protect the rights of women, as well as freedoms for media workers and diplomats.
"We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe," he told the BBC, saying that a transfer of power was expected in days.
Transfer of power
The government's acting interior minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal had said earlier in the day that power would be handed over to a transitional administration.
Three diplomatic sources said Mr Ali Ahmad Jalali, a US-based academic and former Afghan interior minister, could be named head of an interim administration.
But two Taleban officials told Reuters later that there would be no transitional government and that the group expects a complete handover of power.
Taleban negotiators were heading to the presidential palace in Kabul to prepare for a transfer of power, the Associated Press said.
An Afghanistan government delegation, including senior official Abdullah Abdullah, was on Sunday set to travel to Qatar to meet Taleban representatives, Ms Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Kabul negotiating team, told Reuters.
A source familiar with the matter said US officials would also be involved in the discussions.
The ease of the militant group's advance in recent weeks as the last of American troops withdraw, despite billions of dollars spent by the US and others to build up local Afghan government forces, has stunned the world.
Just last week, a US intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months.
The Taleban said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people.
Situation on the streets
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 said.
Another said: "People are all going home in fear of fighting."
Early on Sunday, refugees from Taleban-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.
US officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopter 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 the capital.
US troops were still arriving at the airport, amid concern of a "mutiny" of heavily armed Afghan security contractors because they have not been assured Washington is committed to evacuating them, a person familiar with the issue said.
Earlier on Sunday, the insurgents 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 Taleban was the only way to save civilian lives," a Jalalabad-based Afghan official said.
A video clip distributed by the Taleban 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 Taleban flag.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was not in America's interests to remain in Afghanistan, as countries called for an emergency United Nations (UN) Security Council meeting.
He said Washington had invested billions of dollars over four US administrations in Afghan government forces, giving them advantages over the Taleban, but that they failed to beat back the militant group's advance.
"The fact of the matter is we've seen that force has been unable to defend the country," he told CNN. "And that has happened more quickly than we anticipated."
Mr Blinken rejected comparisons with the chaotic American departure from Saigon in 1975 as the Vietnam War drew to a close.
"This is not Saigon," he told ABC. "The fact of the matter is this: We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission in mind. That was to deal with the people that attacked us on Sept 11. That mission has been successful."
The US embassy was being moved to the airport and had a list of people to get out of harm's way, Mr Blinken added.
Russia is working with other countries to hold an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan, Russian foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said on Sunday.
Russia is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with the US, Britain, France and China. Estonia and Norway have also requested that the 15-member council meet as soon as possible.
Mr Kabulov said Moscow does not plan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul, and that the Taleban had offered Russia and other countries - which he did not name - security assurances for their missions there.
In Britain, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday recalled Parliament from its summer break for urgent debate on the situation in Afghanistan, his office said.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Johnson had called an emergency response meeting to discuss what Britain should do next. It was the second such meeting in three days.
Britain lost 457 troops fighting in the two-decade-long war, and some British politicians have in recent days called for a last-ditch intervention in Afghanistan.
"Just because the Americans won't (intervene), does not mean to say that we should be tied to the thinking, the political judgment - particularly when it is so wrong - of our closest security ally," Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, told Times Radio.
"We could prevent this, otherwise history will judge us very, very harshly in not stepping in."
Mr Ellwood said the British government could deploy the Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to provide air support in Afghanistan.
Mr Johnson last Friday vowed that Britain would not "turn our backs" on Afghanistan, but said those calling for an intervention "have got to be realistic about the power of the UK or any power to impose a military solution - a combat solution - in Afghanistan".
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said Turkey would work with Pakistan to help stabilise Afghanistan and prevent a new flood of refugees.
Iran said it had set up camps along the Afghan border to provide temporary refuge to Afghans fleeing their country.
A Nato official said the alliance was maintaining its diplomatic presence in Kabul, helping to keep the city's airport running, and that a political solution was "now more urgent than ever".
Mr Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 US troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an "orderly and safe" drawdown of military personnel.
He said his administration had told Taleban officials that any action that put US personnel at risk "will be met with a swift and strong US military response".
Mr Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his predecessor Donald Trump, to end the US Afghan military mission by Aug 31.
"An endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me," Mr Biden said on Saturday.