Afghan protests spread to Kabul in early challenge to Taliban

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KABUL – Protests against the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan have spread to more cities, including the capital Kabul, while the militant group called on the country’s imams to urge unity at Friday prayers, the first since they seized control.

Several people were killed when the militants fired on a crowd in Asadabad in the eastern province of Kunar, a witness said. Another witness reported gunshots near a rally in Kabul, but they appeared to be Taliban firing into the air.

“Our flag, our identity,” a crowd of men and women waving black, red and green national flags shouted in Kabul, a video posted on social media showed, on the day Afghanistan celebrates independence from British control in 1919.

Marchers chanted “God is greatest”. At some protests elsewhere, media have reported people tearing down the white flag of the Taliban.

A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Some demonstrations are small, but combined with a scramble by thousands of people to flee the country via Kabul airport they underline the challenge the Taliban face to govern.

The Islamist movement conquered Afghanistan at lightning speed as foreign troops withdrew, surprising even its leaders and leaving them to fill power vacuums in many places.

The Taliban urged unity ahead of Friday prayers and called on all imams in Kabul and the provinces to persuade people not to try to leave the country.

Since seizing Kabul on Sunday, the Taliban have presented a more moderate face, saying they want peace, will not take revenge against old enemies and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.

During their previous rule from 1996-2001, they severely restricted women’s rights, staged public executions and blew up ancient Buddhist statues.

In Asadabad, several people were killed during a rally, but it was unclear if the casualties resulted from Taliban firing or from a stampede.

“Hundreds of people came out on the streets,” witness Mohammed Salim said. “At first I was scared and didn’t want to go but when I saw one of my neighbours joined in, I took out the flag I have at home.

“Several people were killed and injured in the stampede and firing by the Taliban.”

Protests flared in the city of Jalalabad and a district of Paktia province, also both in the east.

On Wednesday, Taliban fighters fired at protesters waving flags in Jalalabad, killing three, witnesses and media reported.

“Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation,” First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taliban, said on Twitter.

Saleh said on Tuesday he was the “legitimate caretaker president” in Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled.

In anop-edfor the Washington Post, Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, based in an old anti-Taliban stronghold northeast of Kabul, called for Western support.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” wrote Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a veteran guerrilla leader killed by suspected al Qaeda militants in 2001.

Other former Afghan leaders, including ex-president Hamid Karzai, have held talks with the Taliban.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the Taliban must decide if they want international recognition.

“I think they’re going through a sort of existential crisis about: Do they want to be recognised by the international community as being a legitimate government? I’m not sure they do,” Biden said in TV interview.

AIRPORT CHAOS

Kabul has been generally calm, but 12 people have been killed in and around the airport amid chaotic scenes, a NATO and a Taliban official said. The deaths were caused either by gun shots or stampedes, according to the Taliban official.

In one incident captured on social media, a small girl was hoisted over the airport’s high perimeter wall and handed to a U.S. soldier, showing the desperation of people trying to get out.

An Afghan national team footballer died in a fall from a U.S. plane at Kabul airport on Monday, when crowds of people were seen trying to board a moving aircraft, Afghanistan’s Ariana News reported.

Gunmen fired into the air on Thursday at several entrances, scattering crowds including women clutching babies. It was not clear if the men firing were Taliban or security staff helping U.S. forces inside the airport.

The Taliban were “keeping their word” by providing foreign powers with support in evacuating their nationals, a Taliban official said.

“We are facilitating safe exit passage not just for foreigners but also to Afghans,” the official told Reuters.

About 8,000 people have been flown out of Kabul since Sunday, a Western security official said.

Under a pact negotiated by former President Donald Trump’s administration, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces in exchange for a Taliban guarantee not to attack departing foreign forces or let Afghanistan be used for terrorist attacks.

Biden said U.S. forces would remain until all Americans were evacuated, even if that meant staying past an Aug. 31 U.S. deadline for withdrawal.

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