Ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday he supports talks between the Taliban and top former officials, and denied allegations that he transferred large sums of money out of the country before fleeing to the United Arab Emirates.
It comes as local media showed protesters in the eastern city of Jalalabad who were carrying the Afghan flag fleeing with the sound of gunshots in the background.
Mr Ghani – making his first appearance since leaving Kabul on Sunday as the Taliban encircled the capital, a departure that ultimately resulted in their full takeover – reiterated that he had left in order to spare the country more bloodshed.
He said in the recorded video message, broadcast on his Facebook page, that he had no intention of remaining in exile in the Gulf nation and was “in talks” to return home.
He also said he was making efforts to “safeguard the rule of Afghans over our country”, without offering details.
“For now, I am in the Emirates so that bloodshed and chaos is stopped,” Mr Ghani said from the UAE, which confirmed on Wednesday he was being hosted there on “humanitarian grounds”.
He voiced support for talks held Wednesday between senior members of the Taliban movement, Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai, and Abdullah Abdullah, who headed the ultimately failed peace process.
“I want the success of this process,” he said.
It was Mr Abdullah – a long-time rival of Ghani – who announced the president had left the country on Sunday, suggesting he would be judged harshly.
But Mr Ghani insisted he had left for the good of the country, and not his own wellbeing.
“Do not believe whoever tells you that your president sold you out and fled for his own advantage and to save his own life,” he said. “These accusations are baseless… and I strongly reject them.”
“I was expelled from Afghanistan in such a way that I didn’t even get the chance to take my slippers off my feet and pull on my boots,” he added, noting that he had arrived in the Emirates “empty-handed”.
He claimed that the Taliban had entered Kabul despite an agreement not to do so.
“Had I stayed there, an elected president of Afghanistan would have been hanged again right before the Afghans’ own eyes,” he said.
The Taliban, who have pledged a different sort of rule in Afghanistan from their brutal regime two decades ago, met with former president Hamid Karzai and senior official Abdullah Abdullah Wednesday as they seek to form a government.
The Taliban won a lightning victory in a matter of days, taking control of the war-wracked country nearly two decades after being ousted by a US-led invasion in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The group has pledged not to seek revenge against opponents and to respect women’s rights, but there are huge global concerns about their past brutal human rights record, and about tens of thousands of Afghans still trying to flee.
As the Taliban moves to put a government in place, leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has ordered the release of “political detainees”, telling provincial governors to free them “without any restrictions or conditions”, the group said.
Taliban negotiator Anas Haqqani met with Mr Karzai, the first Western-backed leader of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, and Mr Abdullah, who had led the government’s peace council, the SITE monitoring group said.
Taliban leaders “have said that they pardoned all former government officials and thus there is no need for anyone to leave the country,” SITE said, after the Taliban published images of Haqqani meeting Karzai in Kabul.
Protests and gunfire
On Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared a blanket amnesty in the movement’s first press conference and said: “We will not seek revenge.”
He said the new regime would be “positively different” from their 1996-2001 stint, which was infamous for deaths by stoning, girls being banned from school and women from working in contact with men.
He also said they were “committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam”, without offering specifics.
But while the Taliban leadership tried to project a new image, video footage shot by Pajhwok Afghan News, a local news agency, showed protesters in the eastern city of Jalalabad who were carrying the Afghan flag fleeing with the sound of gunshots in the background.
Local media said the residents were protesting the removal of the flags in favour of those of the hardline movement. Two witnesses and a former police official told Reuters at least three people were killed and more than a dozen were injured.
“While I was filming, a Taliban (militant) started hitting me with a gun from behind,” said Babrak Amirzada, a journalist for the agency said.
Residents in Bamiyan city reported that a statue of Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the group in the 1990s, had been decapitated.
Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shiite faith and were massacred in the thousands during the Taliban’s ruthless conquest of the country in the 1990s.
“We are not sure who has blown up the statue, but there are different groups of Taliban present here, including some… who are known for their brutality,” a resident told AFP, asking not to be named.
Afghans and foreigners continued to flee the country on Wednesday, with the United States and other nations stepping up evacuation airlifts from Kabul.
Desperate scenes from the airport at the start of the week have created searing images of Afghans terrified of the Taliban, and a diminished United States unable to protect them.
Some footage showed hundreds of people running alongside a US Air Force plane as it rolled down the runway, with some clinging to the side of it. One person was later found dead in the wheel well of the plane.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said while some shots had been fired, it was believed that none of them had “anything to do with hostile intent” and were instead fired by US personnel as crowd control measures.
US, Turkish and Afghan troops are in full control of both the civilian and military sides of the facility, Mr Kirby told reporters.
Crowds built up outside embassies in Kabul on rumours that governments were offering asylum.
In a dramatic culmination to the Taliban’s takeover, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement’s co-founder and deputy leader, returned to Afghanistan from Qatar late Tuesday.
He chose to touch down in the country’s second biggest city Kandahar – the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace and capital during their first time in power.
Human rights concerns
The United Nations Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on Afghanistan next week to address the “serious human rights concerns” under the Taliban.
The European Union, the United States and 18 other countries issued a joint statement on Wednesday saying they were “deeply worried about Afghan women and girls”, urging the Taliban to ensure their safety.
Demonstrations have been staged in cities around the world in support of Afghan civilians, and women and girls in particular.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has so far given a non-committal response to the Taliban’s pledges of tolerance, saying it is looking at actions, not promises.
Russia and China have meanwhile signalled their willingness to work with the Taliban.