Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's 4th largest city, falls to Taliban
The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days as they have captured Herat in the north and seized Kandahar, it's spiritual heartland in the south.
Taliban has captured another major city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, leaving only Kabul and Jalalabad, as Afghan forces and militia supporting the government escaped, according to reports. The Taliban said in a statement the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) "will, as always, protect their life, property and honour and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation," according to Reuters.
The Sunni Pashtun group said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the people and reassured Afghans and foreigners that they would not be harmed.
"They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration," Atiqullah Ghayor, a Mazar-i-Sharif resident, was quoted as saying by AFP.
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Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary tweeted that there were chaotic scenes in parts of Mazar-i-Sharif and Afghan soldiers were seen fleeing. "One resident told me, there is panic, fear and chances of clashes inside the city," Sarwary said.
Reuters reported citing provincial officials that Taliban fighters entered Mazar-i-Sharif virtually unopposed as security forces escaped up the highway to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Several videos on social media showed Afghan army vehicles and men in uniforms on the iron bridge between Afghanistan's Hairatan and Uzbekistan.
Warlords Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the influential militia leaders supporting the government, also fled, several reports said. Noor said on social media that the Taliban had been handed control of Balkh province, where Mazar-I-Sharif is located, due to a "conspiracy."
Before the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif was confirmed, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation and reassured people that his government will prevent further violence and ensure that stability is maintained. Ghani had flown to Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city's defences and met with several militia commanders, including Dostum and Noor.
Ghani also held talks with local leaders and international partners, including US secretary of State Antony Blinken, on Saturday. The US state department said that Ghani and Blinken discussed urgent efforts to bring down violence in Afghanistan.
Several Western countries are evacuating their embassy staff, citizens and Afghans who had worked for them from Kabul as the hardline Islamist terrorists have swept through the country in recent weeks as US-led forces withdrew. President Joe Biden said on Saturday he was authorising the deployment of 5,000 troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an "orderly and safe" withdrawal of US military personnel. According to UK media reports, the British ambassador will leave the country by Sunday evening, UK media reported. They said the United Kingdom, which was sending 600 troops, sped up the departure of Britons.
Hundreds of thousands of people from across Afghanistan have taken refuge in Kabul and are living in tents or in the open in the city. As the fighting has escalated it has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of gains in human rights, especially for women. Muzhda, a single woman who fled to Kabul with her two sisters from nearby Parwan, said she was terrified. "I am crying day and night. If the Taliban come and force me to marry, I will commit suicide," she told AFP.