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Afghan government falls as the Taliban take charge of Kabul

The Taliban have taken control of the Presidential Palace in Kabul after the President fled, signalling the collapse of the Western-backed government two decades after the United States invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Al Jazeera English broadcast images of a Taliban commander and fighters with guns inside the Presidential Palace just before 11pm (local time) on Sunday night after what they said was a formal handover of the palace.

One of the fighters took down the flag of Afghanistan, rolled it up and placed it on a mantelpiece. Outside, the flag of the Taliban was flown above the palace, replacing the national flag.

Taliban negotiators had entered the capital earlier on Sunday in a relatively peaceful fashion, initially ordering fighters to stay outside the city’s walls as they sought the unconditional surrender of President Ashraf Ghani and his government.

A pair of Taliban officials told Reuters that they expected a complete handover of power and that there would be no transitional government.

Hours later, Ghani fled Kabul with his core team, including the Vice-President and national security adviser, signalling the collapse of his central government.

Ghani had not given a statement since giving a televised address on Saturday. On Facebook, he said he felt it was better to leave to avoid bloodshed.

His departure was condemned by his Defence Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi, who said in a tweet that Ghani had sold out his homeland.

Mohammadi and another former cabinet minister were reported to have fled to the UAE, according to local reports citing Kabul airport sources.

Kabul International Airport remained under Western control, with Britain and the United States relocating embassy staff there, some via emergency evacuation helicopter flights.

But a Nato official said all commercial flights had been suspended with only military aircraft allowed to land and take off.

Earlier, an Emirates passenger flight scheduled to land in Kabul turned back to Dubai without landing.

The Taliban said it would not attack foreign embassies as it advanced into the capital shortly after in what they say was an effort to stop any looting.

The Pentagon authorised another 1000 troops to help evacuate US citizens and Afghans who worked for them, a US official said.

European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taliban and all other parties to exercise the utmost restraint, and expressed particular concern about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the Taliban’s political office told Al-Jazeera TV on Sunday that the war is over in Afghanistan and that the type of rule and the form of regime will be clear soon.

“We assure everyone that we will provide safety for citizens and diplomatic missions. We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection,” spokesman Mohammad Naeem told the Qatar-based channel.

Naeem said the group does not think foreign forces will repeat “their failed experience in Afghanistan again”.

“We move with responsibility in every step and make sure to have peace with everyone… We are ready to deal with the concerns of the international community through dialogue,” spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Qatar-based Al Jazeera Mubasher TV.

Many residents of Kabul attempted to flee, fearful of a return to the repressive Taliban regime of the nineties during which women were forced into marriage and risked execution if they went to school.

There were traffic jams and queues to withdraw bank savings, but the panic appeared to abate by late afternoon as the Taliban urged people to stay put, promising there would be no recriminations.

Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told the Afghan-born Australian BBC presenter Yalda Hakim that the Taliban would run an “inclusive Afghan government.”

He promised that women would have access to work and education, but that they would be required to observe the hijab.

“That is it,” he said.

Shaheen said fighters had been ordered to stay outside the city because the Taliban wanted to “avoid bloodshed and destruction to the properties and the people … and not give chance to looters.”

The collapse of the US-backed Ghani government was swift, with the Taliban reclaiming swathes of the country with lightning speed and with little or no fightback following US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of troops in May.

The Biden administration doubled down on its decision despite widespread condemnation and accusations of betrayal and abandonment, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken telling CNN that the Afghan military had been “unable to defend the country.”

He conceded that the fall had happened more quickly than anticipated but denied it was reminiscent of the US’s hasty exit from Vietnam. “This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said in a separate interview on America’s ABC.

The Taliban’s largely bloodless victory in Kabul came just 10 days after they took control of the provincial capital Zaranj, in the south.

Within a week, four more key capitals had fallen – some in a single day – including the country’s second-most populous city Kandahar. By Sunday, the Taliban had encircled Kabul prompting chaos at the airport as many tried to flee.

Governments, including Canada and France, evacuated their embassy staff, but Russia said it would not retreat as it had been assured its staff would be safe in Kabul.

France’s Ambassador in Afghanistan tweeted a wordless video of himself on a military aircraft leaving the Green Zone where government buildings, embassies and residences were housed.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned countries against individually and prematurely recognising the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new government.