KABUL – Taliban insurgents have seized most of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city,and also captured Ismail Khan, the veteran local commander leading militia resistance there, local officials said on Friday.
The fall of Herat, the latest in a series of major provincial cities to be taken by the Taliban in the past few days, has dealt a shocking blow to the government of President Ashraf Ghani only weeks after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
One official said Afghan government forces had agreed to withdraw from Herat airport, 15 km (nine miles) from the city, and the Army Corps commander’s headquarters, the last centres under their control. However other sources said Afghan forces were still at the airport as of 1 p.m. local time (0830 GMT).
“The Taliban agreed that they will not pose any threat or harm to the government officials who surrendered,” said provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi.
As fighting subsided, the streets fell silent in Herat, a major economic hub of about 600,000 people close to the border with Iran and over centuries one of the historic centres of Persian culture.
“Families have either left or are hiding in their houses,” said Hashimi, who described Herat as a “ghost town”.
Herat has seen increasingly heavy fighting with popular militia groups serving alongside regular army units as Taliban pressure on the city mounted following the U.S. pullout.
Khan, the most prominent militia commander and believed to be in his 70s, together with the provincial governor and security officials, were handed over to the Taliban under an agreement, Hashimi told Reuters. He had no details of the deal.
Khan’s capture, confirmed by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, provided one of the most potent symbols of the crumbling of resistance in the city.
Photos and videos showing the eminent commander apparently in the hands of the insurgents were widely shared on social media although they could not immediately be verified.
Ismail Khan is widely known as the Lion of Herat. His involvement in Afghanistan’s wars goes back to the anti-government uprising that helped trigger the 1979 Soviet intervention, and his return to the front lines a month ago was a clear sign of the growing threat to Herat.