KABUL (REUTERS) - The Taleban called on Afghanistan's imams to urge unity when they hold their first Friday prayers since the Islamist group seized control of the country, as protests against the takeover spread to more cities on Thursday (Aug 19), including the capital Kabul.
Several people were killed when Taleban militants fired on a crowd in the eastern city of Asadabad, a witness said. Another witness reported gunshots near a rally in Kabul, but they appeared to be Taleban firing into the air.
On the day Afghanistan celebrates its independence from British control in 1919, a social media video showed a crowd of men and women in Kabul waving black, red and green national flags.
"Our flag, our identity," they shouted.
At some protests elsewhere, media reported people tearing down the white flag of the Taleban.
A Taleban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Some demonstrations were small, but combined with the desperate scramble of thousands of people seeking to flee the country they underline the challenge the Taleban face in governing.
The group had conquered Afghanistan at lightning speed as foreign troops withdrew, surprising even their own leaders and leaving power vacuums to fill in many places.
The Taleban urged unity ahead of Friday prayers, and they called on all imams to persuade people not to leave the country.
Since seizing Kabul on Sunday, the Taleban have presented a more moderate face, saying they want peace, will not take revenge against old enemies and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.
When in power from 1996-2001, they severely restricted women's rights, staged public executions and blew up ancient Buddhist statues.
A report by a Norwegian intelligence group said the Taleban had begun rounding up Afghans on a blacklist of people linked to Afghanistan's previous administration or US-led forces that supported it. Complaints by some Afghan journalists have cast doubt on assurances that independent media would be allowed.
A US lawmaker said the Taleban were using files from Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, to identify Afghans who worked for the United States.
"They are methodically ramping up efforts to round those folks up," said Representative Jason Crow, who has been leading efforts in the US Congress to accelerate the evacuation of American-affiliated Afghans. "I've had people send me pictures of Taleban outside their apartment complexes, searching for them."
Complaints by some Afghan journalists have cast doubt on assurances that independent media would be allowed.
Amnesty International said an investigation found the Taleban had murdered nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province last month, raising fears that the Taleban, whose members are Sunni Muslims will target Hazaras, who mostly belong to the Shi'ite minority.
A Taleban spokesman was not immediately available for comment on the reports.
British media reported that the country's spy chiefs may face a grilling over intelligence failings. Several British civil servants remained on holiday as the Afghan debacle erupted, and Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has been heavily criticised for his initial response to the unfolding crisis.
It was unclear if the casualties in Asadabad resulted from Taleban firing or from a stampede.
"Hundreds of people came out on the streets," witness Mohammed Salim said. "At first I was scared and didn't want to go but when I saw one of my neighbours joined in, I took out the flag I have at home.
"Several people were killed and injured in the stampede and firing by the Taleban."
Protests flared in the city of Jalalabad in Paktia province, also in the east. On Wednesday, Taleban fighters fired at protesters waving flags in Jalalabad, killing three, witnesses and media reported.
First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taleban, said on Twitter: "Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation."
Saleh said on Tuesday he was the "legitimate caretaker president" in Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled.
Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan and the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a veteran guerilla leader killed by suspected Al-Qaeda militants in 2001, called for Western support to fight the Taleban.
"I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father's footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taleban," Massoud wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.
Qatar could host fresh talks between the Taleban and the Afghan government as soon as next week to reach an agreement over power sharing and government transition, said two sources familiar with the process and two foreign diplomats.
Former Afghan leaders, including ex-president Hamid Karzai, have already held talks with the Taleban.
Group of Seven foreign ministers called for a united international response to prevent the crisis escalating further, in comments echoed by countries including Russia. China said the world should support, not pressure, Afghanistan.
US President Joe Biden said the Taleban must decide if they want international recognition.
"Do they want to be recognised by the international community as being a legitimate government? I'm not sure they do," Mr Biden said in TV interview.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in an interview with NBC News, mentioned US concern over "the potential for a terrorist attack" by a group like Islamic State amid the evacuation.
"We will get any American who wants to get to the airport and who we get in contact with who says, 'I want to get out and get on a plane', we will make that happen," Mr Sullivan said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Taleban's desire for international recognition is the Security Council's only leverage to press for an inclusive government and respect for rights, particularly for women, in Afghanistan.
G-7 foreign ministers called for a united international response to prevent the crisis from escalating further, in comments echoed by countries including Russia. China said the world should support, not pressure, Afghanistan.
More than 18,000 people have been flown out of Kabul since the Taleban took over, a Nato official said on Friday, pledging to redouble evacuation efforts as criticism of the West's handling of the crisis mounted.
Thousands of people, desperate to flee the country, continued to throng the airport, the official who declined to be identified told Reuters.
The speed with which the Taleban conquered Afghanistan as US and other foreign troops withdrew surprised even their own leaders and has left power vacuums in many places.
At the border with Pakistan, traders and officials said commercial traffic was starting to return to normal.
Kabul has been largely calm, but 12 people have been killed in and around the airport, a Nato and a Taleban official said.
The governments of Germany and Australia have also faced calls to do more and speed up the evacuation of citizens and vulnerable Afghans.
Criticism of Nato and other Western powers has mounted as images of the chaos and desperation are shared around the world.
In one scene captured on social media, a small girl was hoisted over the airport's perimeter wall and handed to a US soldier.
A Taleban official said they could not be blamed for the chaos at the airport.
The Taleban were "keeping their word" by providing foreign powers with support in evacuations, another Taleban official told Reuters. "We are facilitating safe exit passage not just for foreigners but also to Afghans."
Afghanistan's Ariana News reported that an Afghan national team footballer died in a fall from a US plane at Kabul airport on Monday, when crowds of people were seen trying to board a moving aircraft.
US Army Major-General William Taylor said more than 5,200 US troops were guarding Kabul airport, where multiple gates are now open.
US fighter jets are flying over the city to ensure security for the evacuation operation, the Pentagon said.
Under a pact negotiated by former President Donald Trump's administration, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces in exchange for a Taleban guarantee not to attack departing foreign forces or let Afghanistan be used for terrorist attacks.
Mr Biden said US forces would remain until all Americans were evacuated, even if that meant staying past an Aug 31 US deadline for withdrawal.