Two more cities fall to Taliban as thousands flee northern Afghanistan

·4 min read

The Taliban seized two more Afghan cities Tuesday -- including one just 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Kabul -- as tens of thousands of people fled their homes in the north for the relative safety of the capital and other centres.

But despite the bloodshed, and with eight provincial capitals now toppled in the insurgents' sweeping advance, US President Joe Biden gave no hint of delaying his deadline to withdraw all American troops by August 31, instead urging Afghan leaders to "come together" and "fight for themselves."

"I do not regret my decision" to withdraw US troops after two decades of war, Biden told reporters in Washington.

He spoke after the insurgents won control of Farah city, capital of the same-named province, and Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan, within hours of each other, officials in both centres told AFP.

"The Taliban are now in the city," Baghlan MP Mamoor Ahmadzai told AFP.

"They have raised their flag in the main square and on governor's office building."

The Taliban confirmed their seizure in separate tweets.

Six of the other provincial capitals to have fallen since Friday are in the country's north, with the insurgents setting their sights on Mazar-i-Sharif, the region's biggest city.

Its fall would signal the total collapse of government control in the traditionally anti-Taliban north.

Government forces are also battling the hardline Islamists in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern Pashto-speaking provinces from where the Taliban draw their strength.

Meanwhile, Washington's special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Qatar to try and convince the Taliban to accept a ceasefire.

Envoys from hosts Qatar, Britain, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, the United Nations, and European Union were also due to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, a source told AFP.

The United States has already all but left the battlefield.

Biden stressed that Washington would continue to support the Afghan security forces with air strikes, food, equipment and money for salaries.

"We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces" over two decades, he said.

"They have got to want to fight. They have outnumbered the Taliban."

- Brutal treatment -

The Taliban have appeared largely indifferent to peace overtures, and seem intent on a military victory to crown a return to power after their ouster 20 years ago in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As fighting raged, thousands of people were on the move inside the country, fleeing newly captured Taliban cities with tales of brutal treatment by the insurgents.

"The Taliban are beating and looting," said Rahima, now camped out with hundreds of families at a park in the capital, Kabul, after fleeing Sheberghan province.

"If there is a young girl or a widow in a family, they forcibly take them. We fled to protect our honour."

The UN's International Organization for Migration said Tuesday that more than 359,000 people have been displaced by fighting this year alone.

In the northern city of Kunduz that was captured by the Taliban over the weekend, residents said shops had begun to reopen in the centre as the insurgents focused their attention on government forces who had retreated to the airport.

"People are opening their shops and businesses, but you can still see fear in their eyes," said shopkeeper Habibullah.

Another resident, living close to the airport, reported days of heavy fighting.

"The Taliban are hiding in people's houses in the area and government forces are bombing them," said Haseeb, who only gave his first name.

- 'Atrocious situation' -

On Tuesday, the threat to Mazar-i-Sharif grew after the Taliban captured Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to the east.

The Indian consulate in Mazar called on its nationals to board a "special flight" scheduled for later in the day.

But Fawad Aman, spokesman for the ministry of defence, said Afghan forces had the upper hand in the city, a linchpin for government control of the north.

From Geneva, the UN warned the war was unleashing another humanitarian crisis.

"Unless all parties return to the negotiating table and reach a peaceful settlement, the already atrocious situation for so many Afghans will become much worse," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.