KABUL (AFP) - The Taleban, who have pledged a "positively different" sort of rule in Afghanistan from their brutal regime two decades ago, met with former president Hamid Karzai and senior official Abdullah Abdullah on Wednesday (Aug 18) as they seek to form a government.
The talks came as president Ashraf Ghani - who fled Afghanistan as the insurgents closed in on Kabul at the weekend, sealing their return to power - said from the United Arab Emirates that he supported those negotiations and was in talks to return home.
The United States however expressed concerns that the militants, who took over the country after a lightning offensive that ended in Kabul, were already reneging on promises of safe passage to the airport for those Afghans wishing to leave.
And though Washington once backed Ghani, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said he was "no longer a figure" on the country's complex political stage.
The Taleban's return to power comes nearly two decades after they were ousted by a US-led invasion in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
The group has pledged not to seek revenge against opponents and to respect women's rights, but there are huge global concerns about their past brutal human rights record, and about tens of thousands of Afghans still trying to flee.
US diplomats in Doha and military officials in Kabul "are engaging directly with the Taleban to make clear that we expect them to allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals and all Afghans who wish to leave to do so safely and without harassment," Sherman told reporters in Washington.
As the Taleban moves to put a government in place, leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has ordered the release of "political detainees", telling provincial governors to free them "without any restrictions or conditions", the group said.
Taleban negotiator Anas Haqqani met with Karzai, the first Western-backed leader of Afghanistan after the Taleban's ouster in 2001, and Abdullah, who had led the government's peace council, the Site monitoring group said.
Taleban leaders "have said that they pardoned all former government officials and thus there is no need for anyone to leave the country," Site said, after the Taleban published images of Haqqani meeting Karzai in Kabul.
Ghani - who was in the United Arab Emirates, which said it was hosting him and his family "on humanitarian grounds" - said he wanted those negotiations to be a "success".
Protests and gunfire
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Tuesday that the new regime would be "positively different" from their 1996-2001 stint, which was infamous for deaths by stoning, girls being banned from school and women from working in contact with men.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement's co-founder and deputy leader, returned to Afghanistan from Qatar late on Tuesday, landing in Kandahar - the group's spiritual birthplace.
But while the Taleban leadership tried to project a new image, video footage shot by Pajhwok Afghan News, a local news agency, showed protesters in the eastern city of Jalalabad who were carrying the Afghan flag fleeing with the sound of gunshots in the background.
Local media said the residents were protesting the removal of the flags in favour of those of the hardline movement.
And residents in Bamiyan city reported that a statue of Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the group in the 1990s, had been decapitated.
Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shi'ite faith and were massacred in the thousands during the Taleban's ruthless conquest of the country in the 1990s.
"We are not sure who has blown up the statue, but there are different groups of Taleban present here, including some... who are known for their brutality," a resident told AFP, asking not to be named.
The Taleban astonished the world in 2001 when it destroyed two monumental and ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, after deeming them un-Islamic.
Afghans and foreigners continued to flee the country on Wednesday, with the United States and other nations stepping up evacuation airlifts from Kabul.
Desperate scenes from the airport at the start of the week have created searing images of Afghans terrified of the Taleban, and a diminished United States unable to protect them.
"There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days," US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley said on Wednesday.
"This comes down to an issue of will and leadership."
US, Turkish and Afghan troops are in full control of both the civilian and military sides of the airport, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
"We are going to evacuate everybody that we can physically, possibly evacuate, and will conduct this process for as long as we possibly can," US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said.
Crowds built up outside embassies in Kabul on rumours that governments were offering asylum.
Human rights concerns
The United Nations Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on Afghanistan next week to address the "serious human rights concerns" under the Taleban.
The European Union, the United States and 18 other countries issued a joint statement on Wednesday saying they were "deeply worried about Afghan women and girls", urging the Taleban to ensure their safety.
Demonstrations have been staged in cities around the world in support of Afghan civilians, and women and girls in particular.
US President Joe Biden's administration has so far given a non-committal response to the Taleban's pledges of tolerance, saying it is looking at actions, not promises.
Russia and China have, meanwhile, signalled their willingness to work with the Taleban.