KABUL: Foreign powers sought to increase evacuations from Afghanistan on Friday after reports of Taliban reprisals, including against people who had worked with US-led forces or the previous Western-backed government.
More than 18,000 people have been flown out since the militants took the capital Kabul, according to transatlantic alliance Nato, but Western governments are facing criticism for not anticipating such a speedy exodus or helping enough.
Thousands still thronged the airport where gun-toting Taliban members urged people without travel documents to go home. Some have fled gunfire in recent days.
“As of today, those who may be in danger have no clear way out,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said, urging neighbouring countries to keep borders open.
The speed with which the Islamist group conquered Afghanistan as foreign troops were withdrawing surprised even their own leaders and left power vacuums.
The Taliban called for unity ahead of Friday prayers, asking imams to persuade people not to leave. Residents in Kabul and four other major cities said prayers appeared to have passed off without incident, though attendance was low.
However, a German civilian was wounded by a gunshot on the way to the airport before being evacuated, a German government spokesman said. And German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said Taliban fighters killed a member of the family of one of its reporters and badly wounded another in house-to-house searches.
Some Afghans have reported being beaten and having their homes raided, while others say they have received reassurances of safety. Taliban spokespeople were not immediately available for comment.
A witness said several people were killed in the eastern city of Asadabad on Thursday when militants fired on a protest.
The Taliban want to establish an “emirate” governed by strict Islamic law.
There were similar shows of defiance in two other eastern cities - Jalalabad and Khost - coinciding with celebrations of the nation’s 1919 independence from British control.
In and around Kabul airport, 12 people have been killed since Sunday, NATO and Taliban officials said.
Washington has about 5,800 soldiers controlling the airport, a US official said.
The United States was “laser-focused” on “the potential for a terrorist attack” by a group such as Islamic State during the evacuation, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview with NBC News.
BIDEN TO SPEAK
US President Joe Biden was set to speak about the evacuation efforts at 1pm (1700 GMT) on Friday, having faced a torrent of criticism for his handling of the troop withdrawal, negotiated by the previous U.S. administration.
In Britain, media said several senior officials were on holiday as the Afghan debacle erupted and that spy chiefs may face a grilling over intelligence failings. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab countered that the government had been working “tirelessly” on the evacuations.
Germany said on Friday it was sending helicopters to help.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said other countries should not impose their own values on Afghanistan and that the reality was that the Taliban had taken control of most of the country.
China said the world should support, not pressure, Afghanistan and a Taliban spokesman told Chinese state media that Beijing has played a constructive role and was welcome to contribute to its rebuilding.
The Taliban ruled with an iron fist from 1996-2001 before being toppled by U.S.-led forces for sheltering al Qaeda militants behind the September 11 attacks. However, since taking Kabul, they have sought to present a more moderate face.
They said they want peace, will not take revenge against enemies and will respect women‘s rights within Islamic law.
They are working to set up a government, including talks with a former president, Hamid Karzai.
There are immediate fears for the economy, with foreign grants and aid set to slow, funds and assets trapped abroad and GDP predicted to slump. Hundreds of bureaucrats are unpaid for two months, a Taliban official said.
A Norwegian intelligence group said the Taliban had begun rounding up Afghans on a blacklist.
Amnesty International said the Taliban, whose members are Sunni Muslims, killed nine men of the mainly Hazara minority ethnic group after taking control of Ghazni province last month.
A US lawmaker said the Taliban were using files from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency to identify Afghans who worked for the United States.
“They are methodically ramping up efforts to round those folks up,” said Representative Jason Crow, whose office has fielded over 1,000 evacuation requests from American-affiliated Afghans in the past four days.