KABUL, Aug 19 (Reuters) – Flag-waving protesters took to the streets of more Afghan cities on Thursday as popular opposition to the Taliban spread, and a witness said several people were killed when the militants fired on a crowd in Asadabad in the east.
“Our flag, our identity,” a crowd of men and women waving black, red and green national flags shouted in the capital Kabul, a video clip posted on social media showed, on the day Afghanistan celebrates independence from British control in 1919.
A witness reported gunshots fired near the rally, but they appeared to be armed Taliban shooting in the air.
One woman walked wearing an Afghan flag around her shoulders, and those marching chanted “God is greatest”. At some protests elsewhere, media have reported people tearing down the white flag of the Taliban.
A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Some of the demonstrations are small, but combined with the ongoing scramble by thousands of people to get to Kabul airport and flee the country, they underline the challenge the Taliban face to govern the country.
The Islamist militant movement conquered Afghanistan at lightning speed as foreign troops withdrew, surprising even its leaders and leaving them to fill a power vacuum in many places.
Since seizing Kabul on Sunday, the Taliban have presented a more moderate face to the world, saying they want peace, will not take revenge against old enemies and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.
During their previous rule from 1996-2001, they severely restricted women’s rights, staged public executions and blew up ancient Buddhist statues.
In Asadabad, capital of the eastern province of Kunar, several people were killed during a rally, but it was not clear if the casualties resulted from Taliban firing or from a stampede that it triggered, witness Mohammed Salim said.
“Hundreds of people came out on the streets,” Salim said. “At first I was scared and didn’t want to go but when I saw one of my neighbours joined in, I took out the flag I have at home.
“Several people were killed and injured in the stampede and firing by the Taliban.”
Protests also flared up in the city of Jalalabad and a district of Paktia province, both also in the east.
On Wednesday, Taliban fighters fired at protesters waving flags in Jalalabad, killing three, witnesses and media reported. Media reported similar scenes in Asadabad and another eastern city, Khost, on Wednesday.
“Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation,” First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taliban, said on Twitter.
Saleh said on Tuesday he was in Afghanistan and the “legitimate caretaker president” after President Ashraf Ghani fled as the Taliban took Kabul.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, based in the old anti-Taliban stronghold of the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul, called for Western support to fight the Taliban.
“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” wrote Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a veteran guerrilla leader killed by suspected al Qaeda militants in 2001.
Other former Afghan leaders, including ex-president Hamid Karzai, have been holding talks with the Taliban as they put together a new government.
US President Joe Biden said the Taliban must decide if it wanted international recognition.
“I think they’re going through a sort of existential crisis about: Do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government? I’m not sure they do,” Biden said in TV interview aired on Thursday.
Kabul has been generally calm since Taliban forces entered on Sunday, but the airport has been in chaos as people try to leave the country.
Twelve people have been killed in and around the airport, a NATO and a Taliban official said. The deaths were caused either by gun shots or by stampedes, according to the Taliban official.
He urged people who do not have the legal right to travel to go home. “We don’t want to hurt anyone at the airport,” said the Taliban official, who declined to be identified.
In one scene captured on social media, a small girl was hoisted over the airport’s high perimeter wall and handed to a US soldier standing guard, underlining the desperation many people feel.
Gunmen fired into the air on Thursday at several entrances, sending the crowds, including women clutching babies, scattering. It was not clear if the men firing were Taliban or security staff helping U.S. forces inside the airport.
(For a graphic on the airport chaos, click here: https://tmsnrt.rs/3stVpcj)
The United States and other Western powers pressed on with the evacuation of their nationals and some Afghan staff. About 8,000 people have been flown out since Sunday, a Western security official said.
Under a pact negotiated by former President Donald Trump’s administration, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces in exchange for a Taliban guarantee they would not let Afghanistan be used to launch terrorist attacks.
The Taliban also agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.
President Biden said US forces would remain until the evacuation of Americans was finished, even if that meant staying past an AugUST 31 US deadline for withdrawal.
Reporting by Kabul and Washington newsrooms; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Jane Merriman, Nick Macfie, Mike Collett-White and Catherine Evans