Taliban control all key Afghan cities except Kabul

The Taliban have moved closer to retaking full control of Afghanistan, with the capital Kabul now the only major city left in government hands.

On Sunday, the militants took control of Jalalabad, a key eastern city, without a fight.

It followed the seizure of the government’s northern bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif just a day earlier.

The rapid collapse of government forces has left President Ashraf Ghani under growing pressure to resign.

He appears to face a stark choice between surrender or a fight to hold the capital.

Meanwhile, the US has begun evacuating members of staff from its embassy in Kabul. On Sunday morning they were being taken to the airport where they have been seen boarding six large military transport planes. The US has deployed 5,000 troops to help with the operation.

President Joe Biden has defended his decision to escalate the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying he could not justify an “endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict”.

Reports on Sunday morning said the Taliban overran the city, the capital of Nangarhar province, without a shot being fired.

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“There are no clashes taking place right now in Jalalabad because the governor has surrendered to the Taliban,” a local Afghan official told Reuters news agency.

“Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.”

Journalist Tariq Ghazniwal tweeted images purportedly showing the provincial governor handing over control to the Taliban.

The capture of Jalalabad means the Taliban have secured the roads connecting the country with Pakistan.

It came hours after Mazar-i-Sharif – the capital of Balkh province and fourth-largest city in Afghanistan – also fell largely without a fight.

Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from Balkh, told the Associated Press news agency that the national army were the first to surrender, which then prompted pro-government forces and other militia to give up.

The insurgents now control 23 of 34 provincial capitals.

More than a quarter of a million people have been displaced by the fighting and many have sought refuge in Kabul.

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Some who had fled areas controlled by the Taliban said militants there were demanding families hand over unmarried girls and women to become wives for their fighters.

Muzhda, 35, a single woman who fled from Parwan to Kabul with her two sisters, said she would take her own life rather than let the Taliban force her to marry.

“I am crying day and night,” she told AFP news agency.

Women from Taliban-held areas have also described being forced to wear burkas – one-piece veils that cover the face and body – and militants are reported to have beaten people for breaking social rules.

“God forbid we will see war in Kabul,” city resident Sayed Akbar, 53, told the New York Times. “People here have gone through 40 years of sorrows. The roads on which we are walking are built on people’s bones.”

One 17-year-old, named only as Abdullah, told AFP news agency that he and his family had fled the northern city of Kunduz after it was seized by the Taliban and were now sleeping under a tent in a Kabul park.

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He said he and other youths in Kunduz had been forced into carrying rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions for the militants.

Kabul residents have formed long queues at banks trying to withdraw their savings. Some branches have reportedly already run out of money.

There were also reports of a riot at Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of the capital, with local residents saying gunfire was heard from the facility.

In a pre-recorded TV address on Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani said a top priority was the remobilisation of the Afghan armed forces to prevent further destruction and displacement of people.

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