The Taliban were on the brink of total victory in Afghanistan, with their fighters ordered to wait on the outskirts of the capital and the government conceding it was preparing for a “transfer of power”.
President Ashraf Ghani fled, a top official said, effectively ceding power to the Taliban as they reached the capital Kabul — the capital of Afghanistan — to seal a nationwide military victory in just 10 days.
“The former Afghan President has left the nation, leaving the people to this situation,” Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the peace process, said in a video on his Facebook page.
“God hold him accountable, and the people will have their judgement.”
He gave no indication where Ghani was going, but leading Afghan media group Tolo news suggested he was heading to Tajikistan.
The Afghan government had earlier signalled there were negotiations underway to avoid bloodshed in Kabul, and to give the Taliban control.
The insurgents said they want a “peaceful transfer” within the next few days, two decades after US-led forces toppled it in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“The Afghan people should not worry… there will be no attack on the city and there will be a peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government,” Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal said in a recorded speech.
Ghani’s departure from office was one of the key demands of the Taliban in months of peace talks with the government, but he had stubbornly clung to power.
Thousands of police and other armed services members have abandoned their posts, uniforms and even weapons. The Taliban said it had no plans to take the Afghan capital “by force”.
“It is our responsibility and we will do it in the best possible manner,” Ghani said, hours after the Taliban seized two nearby prisons and released thousands of inmates.
A spokesman for the Taliban released a statement saying it had instructed its fighters to “stay at the gates of Kabul and not enter the city. Until the transition takes place, the Afghan government is responsible for the security of Kabul”.
The statement added: “We don’t want a single, innocent Afghan civilian to be injured or killed as we take charge but we have not declared a ceasefire.”
Pro-Taliban social media accounts boasted that its fighters were moving rapidly through the outlying districts of Kabul province, with the outskirts of the city in close proximity.
Kabul is the last city not controlled by the militants after a sweeping campaign that began months ago.
The insurgents took control of the key eastern city of Jalalabad on Sunday, just hours after seizing the northern anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif.
That victory left the capital open and extended an astonishing rout of government forces and war lord militias achieved in just 10 days.
BBC reporter Yalda Hakim, who has reported from Afghanistan for years, said the militants were not encountering a lot of resistance in the Afghan capital.
The Taliban has reportedly ordered its fighters to refrain from perpetrating violence in Kabul.
Reuters quoted a Taliban leader in Doha saying safe passage would be allowed for anyone who chose to leave.
He also requested that women go to protected areas.
Emergency talks about ‘surrender’
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is reportedly in talks with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation and top NATO officials.
Reuters earlier reported that Mr Ghani’s government was in talks with the Taliban about “a peaceful surrender” of Kabul.
People desperately trying to flee
There are reports of massive traffic jams and a run on banks as people try to desperately flee Kabul.
AFP footage shows big queues of Afghans outside banks in Kabul.
Afghan MP Farzana Kochai told the BBC, people had nowhere left to go in Kabul.
“I don’t know, they can’t go to anywhere, there’s nowhere left. The aircraft may be full and the flights from Kabul today, I checked with some friends who are going there, out of Kabul, like to India or any other neighbouring countries,” she said.
“They’re saying that the flights are full and we are stuck here, those who are going to go out and you know, where can they go, they have no choice, they have to stay here.”
Biden orders more troops to aid evacuation
US President Joe Biden has authorised an additional 1000 US soldiers for deployment to Afghanistan as the situation in the country spirals.
That was on top of the 3000 American soldiers deployed in recent days.
US Embassy personnel have been ordered to urgently destroy any sensitive documents.
‘Situation under control’
The Office of the President of Afghanistan released a message saying there had been sporadic shootings in Kabul, but that Kabul had not been attacked.
‘The country’s security and defence forces are working together with international partners to ensure the security of the city, the situation is under control.”
Shocking speed of advance
The scale and speed of the Taliban’s advance has shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the insurgents in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
President Joe Biden announced in May that the final withdrawal of the 20-year military presence in Afghanistan would be completed by September 11.
That decision has come under increased scrutiny given the collapse of the Afghan armed forces, but he insisted on Saturday there was no choice.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth,” Mr Biden said.
Australia completed its formal troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July.