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Taliban fighters battled resistance forces in Afghanistan's Panjshir province on Saturday, as their leaders in Kabul prepared to formally take control of the country two weeks after seizing the capital.
The Taliban have not officially claimed to have seized Panjshir, the last province to hold out against the insurgent group's sweep across the country last month, but rumours that it had fallen sparked celebratory gunfire in Kabul on Friday evening that killed two people.
The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, made up of opposition forces loyal to local leader Ahmad Massoud, said Taliban forces had reached the Darband heights on the border between Kapisa province and Panjshir but were pushed back.
"The defence of the stronghold of Afghanistan is unbreakable," Front spokesman Fahim Dashty said in a tweet.
A Taliban source told The National that their fighters were conducting "cleaning ops" in Panjshir, without providing details.
In recent days, heavy clashes have erupted between the two groups with casualties on both sides. Independent confirmation of events in Panjshir is difficult because the valley is surrounded by mountains except for a narrow entrance.
David Lloyd Webber, the Emergency Hospital’s press officer, said on Saturday that their Panjshir clinic received a small number of wounded.
“During the night of Friday, 3 September, Taliban forces pushed further into the Panjshir Valley, reaching the village of Anabah, where Emergency’s Surgical Centre and Maternity Centre are located,” he said.
There had been no interference with the hospital’s activities, he said.
There has been speculation that the Taliban’s announcement of a new government has been delayed by the battle to seize the Panjshir Valley.
There have also been reports of differences emerging among Taliban officials during meetings over the past two weeks. On Saturday, Gen Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, which has a strong influence on the Taliban, made an unscheduled visit to Kabul.
The US has accused Pakistan and the ISI of backing the Taliban in the group's two-decade fight against the US-backed government in Kabul, although Islamabad has denied the allegations.
After the group seized Kabul this month, analysts said Pakistan would have a much greater role in Afghanistan.
The visit by Gen Hameed came as the international community waits to see whether the Taliban's government will be less hardline that its previous regime, which imposed restrictions on women and sidelined minorities.
The Taliban have promised a broad-based government and have held talks with former president Hamid Karzai and the former government's chief peace negotiator Abdullah Abdullah.
Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, reported by some Taliban sources to be in line to lead the new government, said in televised remarks that the new administration "will include all factions of the Afghan people".
"We are doing our utmost efforts to improve their living conditions. The government will provide security, because it is necessary for economic development," he said.
Meanwhile, there were some signs of normality returning to the Afghan capital.
Qatar's ambassador to Afghanistan said a technical team was able to reopen Kabul airport to receive aid, according to media reports. Domestic flights are also reported to have restarted.
The airport has been closed since an international effort to fly out diplomats, foreigners and Afghans deemed at risk from the Taliban ended on August 30 with the withdrawal of the last US troops in the country.
The US moved out about 124,000 people from Kabul last month, many of them to transit countries in the Middle East. On Saturday, US Brig Gen Gerald Donohue said fewer than 1,400 of the 57,000 people it flew to Qatar were still at the US military base there.
Some of those who had been flown out of Qatar were now in the US, while others were in Europe, where they are being processed, he said.
Many of the 1,400 still at Al Udeid base were scheduled to be flown out on Saturday, while a small group needing medical care would stay until able to travel, he said.
The UN has said it will convene an international aid conference in Geneva on September 13 to help avert what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called a "looming humanitarian catastrophe" in Afghanistan.
Without the aid that has sustained the country for years, the Taliban will find it hard to avert economic collapse.
Western powers said they were prepared to engage with the Taliban and send humanitarian aid, but that formal recognition of the government and broader economic assistance will depend on action – not just promises – to protect human rights.