Afghanistan: Major cities fall to Taliban amid heavy fighting
The Taliban seized the cities of Ghazni and Herat on Thursday, in the most dramatic string of captures since launching their offensive.
Taking the strategically important Ghazni increases the likelihood the Taliban could take the capital Kabul.
There is also heavy fighting in the second largest city, Kandahar.
The insurgents have moved at speed, seizing new territories almost daily, as US and other foreign troops withdraw after 20 years of military operations.
The city of Qala-I-Naw also fell to the Taliban, who now control about a third of the country’s regional cities and most of northern Afghanistan. The group’s rapid advance has dealt a crushing blow to government security forces.
Thousands of civilians have been displaced and fled to Kabul to try and escape the fighting.
Taking Ghazni is a significant gain due to its location — it is 150km (93 miles) from Kabul, and is on the major Kabul-Kandahar motorway, linking militant strongholds in the south to Kabul.
A provincial council member in the city told the BBC that the Taliban had taken most of the centre, with only a police base on the outskirts controlled by the Afghan security forces.
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Herat, which has been under siege for weeks, is also a major win for the militants. It is Afghanistan’s third largest city, lies on significant ancient trade routes and is seen as the gateway to Iran.
On Thursday, video on social media showed the insurgents running through a central Herat street firing their weapons, and the Taliban flag was seen flying over the police headquarters. A regional council member confirmed to the BBC that the city had fallen to the militants.
media captionThe BBC’s Secunder Kermani reports on life in a town recently taken by the Taliban
Meanwhile in Kandahar, once the Taliban’s stronghold, heavy fighting was reported and the militants claimed to have taken over its prison and released all of the inmates, although this has not been confirmed.
If Kandahar falls into militant hands, it will be the biggest loss yet for Afghan security forces.
“Life as we know it is getting harder day by day,” a woman in Kandahar told the BBC, adding “both sides are just using… us as pawns in their own power-hungry games”.
Prisoners were also freed in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, where there are reports that militants have taken over the police headquarters.
The US embassy in Kabul said it was hearing reports that the Taliban was executing Afghan troops who were surrendering, saying it was “deeply disturbing and could constitute war crimes.”
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The US said it was sending military troops to the airport in Kabul to help evacuate a “significant” amount of embassy staff on special flights.
The UK said it was also deploying about 600 troops on a short-term basis to provide support to British nationals leaving the country. The number of staff working at the British embassy in Kabul has abeen reduced to a core team.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in the past month, according to the UN.
Just this week thousands of people from northern provinces have become internally displaced, travelling to Kabul to seek safety. An estimated 72,000 children arrived in the capital in recent days and are mostly sleeping on the streets, according to Save the Children.
Makeshift camps have been established on scrubland on the outskirts of the capital, while many others have reportedly been sleeping on the streets or in abandoned warehouses.
“We have no money to buy bread, or get some medicine for my child,” a 35-year-old street vendor who fled Kunduz province after the Taliban set fire to his home told the BBC.
In response to the insurgency, the German government has threatened to end its annual financial support of $500m (£360m) to Afghanistan if the Taliban gains complete control of the country.
Germany has also suspended the forced repatriation of Afghan citizens whose asylum applications have failed. The French and Danish governments said they would follow the same policy.
Map showing who is control of districts in Afghanistan
On Wednesday, Afghanistan replaced its army chief, General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, who had only been in the post since June.
Also on Wednesday, President Ashraf Ghani flew to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif — traditionally an anti-Taliban bastion — to try to rally pro-government forces there.
Mazar-i-Sharif lies close to the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and its loss would mark the complete collapse of government control over northern Afghanistan.
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President Ghani held crisis talks in Mazar-i-Sharif with ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and prominent ethnic Tajik leader Atta Mohammad Noor about defending the city.
Mr Dostum, a veteran commander, was quoted as saying: “The Taliban have come to the north several times but they were always trapped.”
For years, Mr Ghani tried to sideline the warlords in an attempt to boost the Afghan National Army, and now he is turning to them in his hour of need, the BBC’s Ethirajan Anbarasan says. Earlier this week, the president also agreed to arm pro-government militia.