Kabul: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country on Sunday, hours after the Taliban ordered its fighters to wait on the outskirts of the capital following an astonishing rout of government forces.
"The former Afghan president has left the nation," Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the peace process, said in a video on his Facebook page.
A senior Afghan Interior Ministry official said Ghani had left for Tajikistan. Asked for comment, the president's office said it "cannot say anything about Ashraf Ghani's movement for security reasons".
Taliban fighters entered the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday while panicked workers fled government offices and helicopters landed at the US Embassy in the Afghan capital as the militants' further tightened their grip on the country.
Three Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the Taliban were in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman in the capital. The militants later pledged not to take the capital "by force" as sporadic gunfire could be heard in the capital.
"No one's life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk," the Taliban said.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told a satellite news channel that the insurgents are "awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city." He declined to offer specifics on any possible negotiations between his forces and the government.
But when pressed on what kind of agreement the Taliban wanted, Shaheen acknowledged that they were seeking an unconditional surrender by the central government.
Taliban negotiators headed to the presidential palace Sunday to discuss the transfer, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. It remained unclear when that transfer would take place.
The negotiators on the government side included former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, an official said. Abdullah has been a vocal critic of President Ashraf Ghani, who long refused giving up power to get a deal with the Taliban. The president appeared increasingly isolated.
In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban has defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even with some air support by the U.S. military.
Rapid shuttle flights of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters near the embassy began a few hours later after the militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad. Diplomatic armored SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the movements. However, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy's roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the situation.
Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which typically carry armed troops, later landed near the embassy as well.
The Czech Republic also approved a plan to begin withdrawing their Afghan staff from their embassy after earlier taking their diplomats to Kabul International Airport.
President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke to the nation Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated as well. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving Ghani without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents' advance.
Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing the future. Some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.
Gunfire erupted at several points, though the Afghan presidency sought to downplayed the shooting.
"The defense and security forces along with the international forces working for the security of Kabul city and the situation is under control,'' the presidency said amid the chaos.
Many of Kabul's streets were choked by cars and people either trying to rush home or reach the airport, residents said.
"Some people have left their keys in the car and have started walking to the airport," one resident said. Another said: "People are all going home in fear of fighting." Afghans have fled the provinces to enter Kabul in recent days, fearing a return to hardline Islamist rule, Reuters reported.
Early on Sunday, refugees from Taliban-controlled provinces were seen unloading belongings from taxis and families stood outside embassy gates, while the city's downtown was packed with people stocking up on supplies.
Timeline: the Taliban's sweeping offensive in Afghanistan
In early May, NATO begins a final withdrawal of its mission in Afghanistan involving 9,600 soldiers - 2,500 of them American.
Intense fighting soon breaks out between the Taliban and government forces in southern Helmand province.
A bomb blast outside a girls' school on May 8 in Kabul kills 85, mostly pupils.
The deadliest attack in a year is blamed on the Taliban, though they do not claim it.
US forces withdraw from one of Afghanistan's largest air bases in Kandahar, the country's second-biggest city, in mid-May.
The insurgents then seize districts in Wardak province near Kabul, and in the key province of Ghazni, which straddles roads connecting the capital to Kandahar.
By mid-June they have captured several districts in northern provinces, forcing military retreats.
The Taliban take control of the main Shir Khan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan on June 22, prompting the Central Asian country to check the combat readiness of its armed forces.
US leaves Bagram
Officials on July 2 announce the departure of all American and NATO troops from Bagram, Afghanistan's biggest air base, which served as the linchpin of US-led operations in the country for two decades.
Two days later, the Taliban seize the key district of Panjwai in Kandahar, the insurgents' birthplace and former bastion.
The Taliban announce the capture of Islam Qala, Afghanistan's biggest border crossing with Iran, on July 9.
On July 14, the insurgents take control of the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, a major trade route between the two countries.
The Taliban offensive escalates sharply with a new focus on urban centres as the insurgents attack the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat.
The United States and Britain say the Taliban may have committed war crimes, accusing the insurgents of "massacring civilians" in the town of Spin Boldak.
Eight people are killed on August 3 in a coordinated Taliban-claimed bomb and gun attack targeting the Afghan defence minister and several lawmakers in Kabul.
The Taliban shoot dead the head of the Afghan government's media information centre at a mosque in the capital on August 6.
Provincial capitals fall
The Taliban capture their first Afghan provincial capital, the city of Zaranj in southwestern Nimroz, taking it "without a fight".
The following days several other northern cities fall including Sheberghan, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Aibak, Farah and Pul-e-Khumri.
Despite the bloodshed and sweeping advances, US President Joe Biden gives no suggestion he will delay the withdrawal deadline.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flies to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on August 11 to rally his forces.
But his visit is overshadowed by the surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz and the overnight capture of a ninth provincial capital, Faizabad.
Within reach of Kabul
The Taliban capture Ghazni, 150 kilometres (90 miles) southwest of Kabul, on August 12.
Herat falls in the west the same day, and a day later the Taliban capture Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south.
The cities of Asadabad and Gardez follow on Saturday with Mazar-i-Sharif, which President Ghani had visited just three days earlier.
Jalalabad is taken over by the insurgents early on Sunday, leaving Kabul the only remaining major Afghan city still under government control.
- With inputs from agencies
The Taliban: Key facts about the militant group
The Taliban, which means "students" in the Pashto language, emerged in 1994 around the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. It was one of the factions fighting a civil war for control of the country following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and subsequent collapse of the government.
It originally drew members from so-called "mujahideen" fighters who, with support from the United States, repelled Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Within the space of two years, the Taliban had gained sole control over most of the country, proclaiming an Islamic emirate in 1996 with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Other mujahideen groups retreated to the north of the country.
Following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States by Al Qaida, US-backed forces in the north swept into Kabul in November under the cover of heavy US airstrikes.
The Taliban melted away into remote areas, where it began a 20-year-long insurgency against the Afghan government and its Western allies.
The Taliban's founder and original leader was Mullah Mohammad Omar, who went into hiding after the Taliban was toppled. So secretive were his whereabouts that his death, in 2013, was only confirmed two years later by his son.
For details on the current leadership click
During its five years in power, the Taliban enforced a strict version of sharia law. Women were predominantly barred from working or studying, and were confined to their homes unless accompanied by a male guardian.
Public executions and floggings were common, Western films and books were banned, and cultural artefacts seen as blasphemous under Islam were destroyed.
Opponents and Western countries accuse the Taliban of wanting to return to this style of governance in the areas it already controls - a claim the group denies.
The Taliban said earlier this year it wanted a "genuine Islamic system" for Afghanistan that would make provisions for women's and minority rights, in line with cultural traditions and religious rules.
There are, however, signs the group has already started to prohibit women from working in some areas.
The vast majority of countries, along with the United Nations, recognised a group holding provinces to the north of Kabul as the rightful government-in-waiting.
The United States and the United Nations imposed sanctions on the Taliban, and most countries show little sign it will recognise the group diplomatically.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month Afghanistan risks becoming a pariah state if the Taliban takes power and commits atrocities.
Other countries such as China have begun cautiously signalling they may recognise the Taliban as a legitimate regime.