KABUL, Aug 19 (Reuters) – The Taliban on Thursday urged crowds of Afghans waiting outside Kabul airport in the hope of fleeing the country to go home, saying they did not want to hurt anyone, a day after Taliban fighters fired at protesters, killing three, witnesses said.
The United States and other Western powers pressed on with the evacuation of their nationals and some of their Afghan staff from the airport on Afghanistan’s Independence Day, which could trigger more protests against the Islamists.
While Kabul has been generally calm since Taliban forces entered on Sunday after a week of stunning advances across the country, the airport has been in chaos as people rushed for a way out of Afghan capital.
Twelve people have been killed in and around the airport since Sunday, a NATO and a Taliban official said. The deaths were caused either by gun shots or by stampedes, the Taliban official said.
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.
(For a graphic on the airport chaos, click on: https://tmsnrt.rs/3stVpcj)
About 8,000 people have been flown out since Sunday, a Western security official said. The U.S. military is in charge of the airport while Taliban fighters patrol outside its walled and fenced perimeter.
On Wednesday, witnesses said Taliban gunmen prevented people from getting into the airport compound.
“It’s a complete disaster. The Taliban were firing into the air, pushing people, beating them with AK-47s,” said one person trying to get out on Wednesday.
A Taliban official said commanders and soldiers had fired into the air to disperse the crowd. The situation was more calm on Thursday, witnesses said.
Under a pact negotiated last year 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 left.
President Joe Biden said US forces would remain until the evacuation of Americans was finished, even if that meant staying past a August 31 US deadline for withdrawal. read more
The Taliban have been putting on a moderate face, saying they have changed since their 1996-2001 rule when they severely restricted women, staged public executions and blew up ancient Buddhist statues.
But there are serious doubts about their assurances.
Demonstrations in the eastern city of Jalalabad on Wednesday marked the first major display of collective defiance of the Taliban takeover.
In normal times, the country would celebrate Afghanistan’s 1919 independence from British control on Aug. 19, but scenes in Jalalabad raised the prospect that people could use the patriotic occasion to protest.
Two witnesses and a former police official told Reuters Taliban fighters opened fire when protesters in Jalalabad tried to raise the national flag, killing three and wounding more than a dozen.
Video footage posted online and aired by media showed hundreds of people in Jalalabad with the black, red and green tricolour flying from rooftops and carried by some protesters. Media reported they had torn down the white Taliban flag.
“I will sacrifice my life for this flag. This is my flag. My government will soon be back, God willing,” said one protester wrapped in the tricolour in a report from Sky News.
The centre of opposition to the Taliban is the Panjshir Valley, an ethnic-Tajik stronghold to the northeast of Kabul.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Amad Massoud, the Panjshiri leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan 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 Amhad Shah Massoud, a veteran guerrilla leader assassinated by suspected al Qaeda militants on behalf of the Taliban 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.
The Taliban government may take the form of a ruling council with supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada in overall charge, said Waheedullah Hashimi, a senior member of the group.
Afghanistan would not be a democracy. “It is sharia law and that is it,” he told Reuters.
Reporting by Kabul and Washington newsrooms; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore