Taliban fighters have entered Kabul and are seeking a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ with gunfire heard near the presidential palace as the extremists seized huge swathes of Afghanistan which is on the brink of collapse.
The militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman hours after taking control of Jalalabad, the most recent major Afghan city to fall to the insurgents as they make huge gains across Afghanistan.
The US evacuated diplomats from its embassy by helicopter as a Taliban spokesman said they were looking for a ‘peaceful surrender of the capital after meeting little resistance, while the British ambassador moved to a safe place to prepare for an evacuation.
Foreigners in Kabul have been told they should either leave or register their presence with Taliban administrators, while RAF planes were scrambled to evacuate 6,000 British diplomats, citizens and Afghan translators.
But acting defence minister sought to reassure the public that the capital would remain ‘secure’ despite the gains made by the Taliban, as the country’s president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
Helicopters buzzed over Kabul to evacuate personnel from the US Embassy, while smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents.
Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, who is based in Qatar, is heading to Afghanistan where he is expected to head the new interim government after the transfer which will see President Ghani relinquishing power.
The terror group said: ‘We don’t want a single, innocent Afghan civilian to be injured or killed as we take charge of Kabul but we have not declared a ceasefire.’
They added they do not intend to take Kabul ‘by force’ after entering the outskirts of the city, while Bagram air base, holding ISIS and Taliban fighters, was also surrendered by troops despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces.
An Afghan official earlier confirmed Jalalabad fell under Taliban control without a fight early Sunday morning when the governor surrendered, saying it was ‘the only way to save civilian lives.’
Its fall has also given the Taliban control of a road leading to the Pakistan city of Peshawar, one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan.
Besides Kabul, just seven other provincial capitals out of the country’s 34 are yet to fall to the Taliban after the military, which had been trained by the US, failed to stave off their attacks.
The Taliban are now closing in on the capital from all sides, controlling territories to the North, South, East and West and advancing to just seven miles south of the city.
Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from Logar province, told The Associated Press that the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district on the outskirts of the capital, which was gripped by blackouts, communications outages and street fighting overnight Saturday as the country descends into chaos.
A US defense official has warned it could be only a matter of days before the insurgent fighters take control of Kabul. Just last week, US intelligence estimates expected the city to be able to hold out for at least three months.
As the Taliban advance accelerates, the US is scrambling to evacuate more than 10,000 American citizens from the capital, with officials said to be trying to strike a deal for Taliban fighters not to descend on Kabul until the US can pull everyone out.
However, a senior US official told the New York Times the Taliban have warned the US it must cease airstrikes or else its extremist fighters will move in.
Joe Biden has vowed that any action that puts Americans at risk ‘will be met with a swift and strong US military response.
A total of 5,000 US troops are being deployed to help safely evacuate State Department staff from the US Embassy in Kabul with some of the first diplomats starting to fly out early Sunday.
Two US officials told Reuters a ‘small batch’ of people had already left while most staff were ready to go as soon as they were able.
The evacuation of embassy staff was originally slated to take 72 hours but officials have ramped up efforts to get all Embassy staff out within the next 36 hours as the militant assault picks up pace, sources told CBS News.
Only a small number of key personnel including top decision-makers, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service and top decision-makers and security engineers able to destroy sensitive information will remain.
All US diplomats should be out of the country entirely by the end of August, the sources said.
The US military is preparing to lower the American flag over the Embassy – if the State Department gives the order – signaling its closure.
Biden announced Saturday he was increasing the number of US troops being deployed to protect the withdrawal from the US embassy to 5,000.
Around 1,000 service members are already on the ground and 3,000 more were already being sent next week, before he announced the deployment of an extra 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg as the situation escalated Saturday.