Five people were killed in chaos at Kabul airport on Monday, witnesses said, as U.S. troops guarded the evacuation of embassy staff a day after the Taliban seized the Afghan capital and declared the war was over and peace prevailed.
It was not immediately clear how the victims died. A U.S. official said troops had fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way onto a military flight that was set to take U.S diplomats and embassy staff out of the fallen city.
One witness, waiting for a flight out for more than 20 hours, said it was unclear if the five had been shot or killed in a stampede. U.S. officials at the airport were not immediately available for a comment.
Three bodies could be seen on the ground near what appeared to be an airport side entrance, in video posted on social media. Reuters could not verify the footage. Another witness said he had also seen five bodies.
The chaos came as Taliban officials declared the war over and issued statements aimed at calming the panic that has been building in Kabul as the militants, who ruled from 1996 to 2001, routed the U.S.-backed government’s forces.
President Ashraf Ghani fled from the country on Sunday as the Islamists entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said in a message on Twitter their fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.
“Life, property and honour of none shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.
Earlier, Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV, the Afghan people and the Taliban had witnessed the fruits of their efforts and sacrifices over 20 years.
“Thanks to God, the war is over,” he said.
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
Al Jazeera broadcast footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the presidential palace with dozens of armed fighters.
Naeem said the form of the new regime in Afghanistan would be made clear soon, adding the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and calling for peaceful international relations.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices in their imposition of sharia religious law. During their rule, women could not work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
Both the United Nations and the United States said last week they had received reports that Taliban fighters were executing surrendering government soldiers.
Taliban officials said they had received no reports of any clashes anywhere in the country: “The situation is peaceful,” one said, adding the Taliban controlled 90% of state buildings and fighters had been told to prevent any damage.
Central Kabul streets were largely deserted early on a sunny Monday as waking residents pondered their future.
“I’m in a complete state of shock,” said Sherzad Karim Stanekzai, who spent the night in his carpet shop to guard it. “I know there will be no foreigners, no international people who will now come to Kabul.”
People thronged to the airport from late on Sunday with hundreds wandering on the runways in the dark, pulling luggage and jostling for a place on one of the last commercial flights to leave before U.S. forces took over air traffic control.
Dozens of men tried to clamber onto an overhead departure gangway to board a plane while hundreds of others milled about, a video posted on social media showed.
U.S. forces gave up their big military base at Bagram, some 60 km north of Kabul, several weeks ago, leaving Kabul’s airport their only way out, to the anger of many Afghans.
“The Americans have no right to hold the airport for their own use, they could have used their own base to take people out,” said one person trying to leave.
There was the prospect of chaos in the skies over Afghanistan too. Its civil aviation authority advised transit aircraft to reroute saying its airspace was uncontrolled.
The Pentagon on Sunday authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them, expanding its security presence on the ground to almost 6,000 troops within the next 48 hours.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said early on Monday that all embassy personnel, including Ambassador Ross Wilson, had been transferred to Kabul airport, mostly by helicopter, to await evacuation and the American flag had been lowered and removed from the embassy compound.
Western nations, including France, Germany and New Zealand said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out.
In a Facebook post, Ghani said he had left the country to avoid clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of Kabul residents. Some social media users branded Ghani, who did not disclose his location, a coward for leaving them in chaos.
In Washington, opponents of President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said the chaos was caused by a failure of leadership.
Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, to end the U.S. military mission by Aug. 31.
Britain’s defence minister said British and NATO forces would not be returning to fight the Taliban.
“That’s not on the cards,” Ben Wallace told Sky News. – Reuters