Afghan officials say embattled President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country as the Taliban moved into Kabul.
Two officials speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists told The Associated Press that Ghani flew out of the country. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed Ghani had left in an online video.
“He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah said.
Ghani’s whereabouts and destination are currently unknown.
Several news outlets are reporting the Taliban have taken over the Presidential Palace and Maulana Abdul Ghani has been declared as Afghanistan’s new President.
The Al-Jazeera news network is airing footage of a large group of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace in the Afghan capital.
A Taliban official earlier said the group will declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace in Kabul.
That was the name of the country under the Taliban government ousted by US-led forces after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief media.
The US Embassy in Kabul has suspended all operations and told Americans to shelter in place, saying it has received reports of gunfire at the international airport.
The US is racing to airlift diplomats and citizens out of Afghanistan after the Taliban overran most of the country and entered the capital early Sunday.
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly and the situation at the airport is deteriorating rapidly,” the embassy said in a statement.
“There are reports of the airport taking fire and we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place. The US Embassy in Afghanistan has suspended consular operations effective immediately. Do not come to the Embassy or airport at this time.”
Senior US military officials say Kabul’s international airport has been closed to commercial flights as military evacuations continue.
The suspension of commercial flights cuts off one of the last avenues to escape the country for Afghans fearful of Taliban rule. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
The Taliban captured most of the country in a matter of days and swept into the capital on Sunday.
Scenes of chaos played out at the airport earlier, as Afghans rushed to get on the last flights out of the country.
Videos circulating online showed airport personnel struggling to coral crowds boarding a plane on the tarmac, while a man with an injured leg lay on the ground. In the background, a US Air Force plane was landing.
Afghan leaders have created a coordination council to meet with the Taliban and manage the transfer of the power, after the religious militia’s lightening offensive swept to the capital.
In a statement posted on social media by former president Hamid Karzai, he said the body will be led by the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, as well as the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and himself.
The statement said the move was “to prevent chaos and reduce the suffering of the people,” and to manage peace and a “peaceful transfer”.
The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Afghanistan Monday morning (10am EDT) at the request of Estonia and Norway.
Council diplomats said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief council members on the latest situation following the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
The UN chief on Friday had urged the Taliban to immediately halt their offensive in Afghanistan and negotiate “in good faith” to avert a prolonged civil war. He also said he is “deeply disturbed by early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women and journalists”.
British lawmakers were called back from their summer break to Parliament to discuss the worsening situation, as UK troops landed in Kabul to help evacuate the remaining Britons.
Authorities said Parliament will be recalled for one day on Wednesday to debate the government’s response to the crisis. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also called a meeting of his Cabinet’s emergency committee Sunday as the Taliban advanced into Kabul.
Johnson said after the meeting that the priority is to get British citizens, as well as Afghans who helped UK forces in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, “as fast as we can” in the next few days.
“The ambassador is working round the clock, has been there in the airport to help process the applications,” he told Sky News.
“We certainly have the means at the moment to get them out … It’s just a question of making sure that they’re able to do it over the next few days.”
The “vast bulk” of embassy staff and officials have already left Afghanistan, Johnson said.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, would be airlifted out of the country by Monday evening. The Foreign Office declined to comment on the report.
The United Nations refugee agency says more than 550,000 people in Afghanistan have fled their homes due to the conflict since the start of this year.
A situational update published Sunday by Geneva-based UNHCR shows about 126,000 people were displaced in the previous month to August 9, the most recent date for which figures are available.
A spokeswoman for UNHCR said that while the situation inside Afghanistan is fluid, “for now the displacement is largely internal.””There is a need to support the humanitarian response in the country,” Shabia Mantoo told The Associated Press.
“If we do see cross border movement then additional support outside the country will be necessary too.” The agency continues to have international and Afghan staff on the ground, she said.
Earlier, France announced relocating its embassy in Kabul to the airport to evacuate all citizens still in Afghanistan, initially transferring them to Abu Dhabi.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain said in a statement Sunday that military reinforcements and aircraft would deploy in the hours ahead to the United Arab Emirates, “so that the first evacuations toward Abu Dhabi can start”.
Evacuations have been in progress for weeks and a charter flight put in place by France in mid-July. Since May, France has taken in Afghan employees at French structures under potential threat, with 600 people relocated to France.
France gradually pulled out troops from Afghanistan between 2013 and 2015, and since then former personnel who worked for the French Army and their families, some 1350 Afghans, were brought to France, the statement said. – AP
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