The Taliban have reportedly entered the Afghan capital but the group said its militants have been ordered to wait at the city's gates and that they are not planning to capture Kabul “by force” shortly after they seized control of a strategic eastern city without any resistance.
Afghanistan’s interior ministry announced on Sunday that the Taliban had started entering the capital “from all sides.”
After advancing on the capital, the Taliban reportedly ordered the militants to refrain from violence, allow safe passage to anyone seeking to leave, and urged women to head to protected areas.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the group was in talks with the Afghan government for a peaceful surrender of Kabul.
"Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed," the statement said.
A tweet from the Afghan Presidential office, however, said gunshots had been heard at a number of locations around Kabul, but that security forces were still in control of the city.
As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, local media reports said the United States had started evacuating diplomats from its embassy by helicopter. Several EU staff were also moved to a safer, undisclosed location in the capital.
The militants earlier in the day captured Afghanistan’s key eastern city of Jalalabad, effectively making Kabul the only major city remaining under the government's control.
The militants took control of the strategic city, the capital of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, on Sunday, following an escalating offensive that also put them in charge of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif hours earlier.
Local media reports said the militants captured Jalalabad without a fight, with Afghan officials based in the city saying, "Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives."
The fall of Jalalabad secures roads connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan for the militants.
The Taliban currently hold all of Afghanistan's border crossings, according to media reports.
The Associated Press quoted Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid as saying that the militants had seized the Torkham border crossing, the last post still under government control.
The Taliban said late on Saturday that all key locations across Mazar-i-Sharif had been “completely conquered,” and that the group had also seized “a large number of vehicles, weapons, and equipment.”
The Taliban claimed in a statement that the rapid gains showed the group was popularly accepted by the Afghan people and reassured both Afghans and foreigners that they would be safe.
Media reports said the militants entered the capital city of Balkh province virtually unopposed as security forces had escaped to neighboring Uzbekistan.
Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, two influential resistance leaders supporting the Afghan government, were forced to flee, with the former saying on social media that the militants had been handed control of Balkh province due to a "conspiracy."
Ghani pledges to stop violence
In a televised speech on Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani vowed not to give up on the "achievements" gained over the past 20 years after the collapse of the Taliban, and said, "I will not let the imposed war on people cause more deaths."
Speaking of "re-mobilizing" the military while seeking a "political solution" to the conflict, the Afghan president said consultations were taking place to try to bring the fighting to an end.
Ghani underlined that “a delegation with authority should soon be appointed by the government and be ready for negotiation.”
The latest territory gains by the Taliban come as US President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 US troops to help secure the emergency evacuation of embassy employees in Kabul as well as thousands of Afghan translators working for American forces.
That was on top of the 3,000 American soldiers deployed in recent days, and 1,000 left in the war-torn country after Biden announced in May that the final withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan would be completed by September 1.
Western governments start evacuating embassies
The US government on Sunday started evacuating its diplomats from the embassy in Kabul amid the withdrawal of its forces and the Taliban's escalating offensives.
"We have a small batch of people leaving now as we speak, a majority of the staff are ready to leave," a US official told Reuters. "The embassy continues to function."
Western governments, including the UK, Germany and Switzerland, were also reported to be accelerating plans to evacuate their embassy staff, citizens and Afghans who had worked for them.
The British ambassador will leave the country by Sunday evening, media reported.
Russia says emergency UN meeting on Afghanistan planned
The Russian foreign ministry said on Sunday that Moscow was working with other countries to hold an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan.
"We are working on this," Zamir Kabulov, a foreign ministry official, told Russian media, adding that the meeting will take place in the coming days.
Kabulov said Moscow did not plan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul, saying the Taliban had offered Russia and other countries, which he did not name, security assurances for their missions in Afghanistan.
The official said he was "in direct contact" with Moscow's ambassador in Kabul and underlined that Russian embassy employees continued to work "calmly" and "no evacuation is planned."