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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled his country on Sunday, pledging to hand over power to an interim government as Taliban militants surged into Kabul, taking the sprawling Bagram air base near the city. The Taliban also claimed late on Sunday to have captured the presidential palace.
Mr Ghani said he had left to prevent a "flood of bloodshed", as the Taliban reached Kabul after an astonishing rout of government forces.
"The Taliban have won with the judgement of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen," Mr Ghani said in a statement posted on Facebook.
His departure came as the Taliban's advance left thousands of western diplomats, allied Afghans, journalists, aid workers and others who had the means to flee scrambling to find flight tickets at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The immediate chances of departing on a commercial flight evaporated however as civilian air traffic was suspended. That left US and Nato forces to protect the airport as troops and helicopters evacuated embassy staff, taking them to military transport planes.
In a joint statement late on Sunday, the Pentagon and the US State Department said they were working to secure the airport to enable the extraction of US and allied personnel.
"Over the next 48 hours, we will have expanded our security presence to nearly 6,000 troops, with a mission focused solely on facilitating these efforts and will be taking over air traffic control," the statement read.
"Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the US mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals."
Evacuation efforts would also focus on the thousands of Afghans who have worked with US forces and have been granted special visas.
News of Mr Ghani's departure was confirmed by an unnamed US official with the remark “that's it, it's over,” signalling the end to one of the US's most ambitious “nation building” efforts, spanning 20 years of multinational political and military co-operation.
Chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, referred to Mr Ghani as Afghanistan's “former president” in a video message on his official Facebook page.
Afghanistan's Tolo news and Tajik media said Mr Ghani had flown to neighbouring Tajikistan.
But the Taliban said they would not take Kabul by force, as they had with other vital cities and provinces in the past 10 days.
“Talks are currently going on with the opposition for a peaceful handover of power,” the group said on Sunday.
The prospect of a smooth transition seemed remote as militants took control of army checkpoints and issued a decree for foreigners to either leave or register their presence with authorities.
Mr Jalali, a former minister of interior and now professor at the National Defence University in Washington, was poised to lead an interim administration, although his appointment has yet to be confirmed.
On Sunday evening, the Taliban said they would soon announce a new government, the self-declared “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” amid unconfirmed reports that the group would renege on the promise of an interim administration.
In just over a week, the Taliban have captured huge areas of the country, including the vital eastern city of Jalalabad and the northern trading hub of Mazar-i-Sharif, and closing the last major border crossing out of Afghanistan.
Fear grips Kabul
As the Afghan public awaited clarification on the future of the country's leadership, acting interior minister Abdul Mirzakwal said in a video message that the capital would remain unscathed and stay secured.
Mr Mirzakwal said that there would be a transitional administration. Until then, Afghan government forces have been instructed to maintain law and order, he said.
Government departments asked employees to go home and private businesses and banks closed for the day.
On Saturday, US President Joe Biden authorised the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan, as the US evacuated diplomatic and allied personnel.
Chinook transport helicopters, escorted by heavily armed Apache helicopter gunships, were seen taking people from the US embassy. The scenes were widely compared to the fall of Saigon, the capital of US ally South Vietnam, which fell to communist North Vietnamese forces in 1975.
That saw a scramble to evacuate US diplomats, US Marines and a select number of local Vietnamese allies.
In a statement, Mr Biden said he aims to “make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance".
Mr Biden said he had asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to support Mr Ghani and other Afghan leaders “as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement".
“We’re relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport,” Mr Blinken said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.
“That’s why the president sent in a number of forces to make sure that, as we continue to draw down our diplomatic presence, we do it in a safe and orderly fashion and at the same time maintain a core diplomatic presence in Kabul.”
Canada, Germany and the UK are also pulling out their diplomatic presence from Kabul. Nato said it would retain its forces in the country and assist in keeping Kabul's airport running.
“Nato is constantly assessing developments in Afghanistan,” an official said, adding the security of the alliance's personnel was paramount.
In Kabul, hundreds of residents rushed to the New Kabul Bank to withdraw money from their accounts.
As he came to pick up his salary, Bostan, 24, who served as a police officer in Kandahar said: “The government is not solving our problems.”
Another police officer, Abdul, 32, complained about the wait outside the bank, saying bank workers gave various reasons for the delay.
For tens of thousands of Afghans who have sought refuge in Kabul in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of apprehension and fear.
One doctor who arrived in the capital with his 35-strong family from the northern city of Kunduz said he planned to return.
“I am worried there will be a lot of fighting here. I would rather return home, where I know it has stopped,” he told AFP, asking not to be named.
UAE-based airlines flydubai and Emirates turned back flights from Dubai to Kabul mid-air on Sunday.
Their websites showed a “return” or “forced return” status on their flights to Kabul.
- Additional reporting by Sarwat Nasir and Ruchi Kumar