KABUL (Dispatches) — The Taliban seized another Afghan provincial capital on Tuesday — the seventh in less than a week — as tens of thousands of people fled their homes in the north for the relative safety of Kabul and other centers.
A provincial lawmaker told AFP that the insurgents had taken the city of Farah, capital of the same-named province in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran, while a Taliban spokesman posted pictures of fighters walking casually past the gates of the police headquarters and governor’s office.
Shahla Abubar, a member of Farah’s provincial council, said local security forces retreated towards an army base outside the city.
Five of the other provincial capitals to have fallen since Friday are in the country’s north, with the insurgents setting their sights on Mazar-i-Sharif, the region’s biggest city.
Its fall would signal the total collapse of government control in the traditionally anti-Taliban north.
Government forces are also battling the hardline militants in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern Pashto-speaking provinces from where the Taliban draw their strength.
As fighting raged, thousands of people were on the move inside the country, with families fleeing newly-captured Taliban cities with tales of brutal treatment at the hands of the insurgents.
“The Taliban are beating and looting,” said Rahima, now camped out with hundreds of families at a park in the capital, Kabul, after fleeing Sheberghan province.
“If there is a young girl or a widow in a family, they forcibly take them. We fled to protect our honor.”
“We are so exhausted,” added Farid, an evacuee from Kunduz who did not want to be further identified.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday that more than 359,000 people have been displaced by fighting this year alone.
In the northern city of Kunduz that was captured by the Taliban over the weekend, residents said shops had begun to reopen in the center as the insurgents focused their attention on government forces who had retreated to the airport.
“The Taliban are hiding in people’s houses in the area and government forces are bombing them,” said Haseeb, who only gave his first name.
Following the capture of Aibak on Monday, the insurgents have now overrun five provincial capitals in the north. They have also taken Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province, in the southwest.
On Tuesday, the Taliban reiterated they were closing in on Mazar-i-Sharif — a linchpin for the government’s control of the north — after
capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.
The Indian consulate in Mazar, however, called on its nationals to board a “special flight” scheduled for later in the day.
President Ashraf Ghani called on regional strongmen to support his government. In the capital Kabul, Ghani’s aides said he was seeking help from regional militias he has squabbled with over the years to rally to the defense of his government. He had also appealed to civilians to defend Afghanistan’s “democratic fabric”.
“The only way is self-imposed house arrest or to find a way to leave for Kabul,” said Sher Mohamed Abbas, a provincial tax officer, when asked about living conditions in Aibak.
“But then even Kabul is not a safe option anymore,” said Abbas, the sole bread winner for a family of nine.
For years, the north was the most peaceful part of the country with an only minimal Taliban presence.
The militants’ strategy appears to be to take the north, as well as the main border crossings in the north, west and south, and then close in on Kabul.
The Taliban swept into Aibak on Monday meeting little resistance.
Taliban forces now control 65% of Afghan territory, are threatening to take 11 provincial capitals and are trying to deprive Kabul of its traditional support from national forces in the north, a senior EU official said on Tuesday.
The government has withdrawn forces from hard-to-defend rural districts to focus on holding major population centers, while officials have appealed for pressure on neighboring Pakistan to stop Taliban reinforcements and supplies flowing over the porous border. Pakistan denies backing the Taliban.
The United States claim it has been carrying out airstrikes in support of government troops but said it was up to Afghan forces to defend their country. “It’s their struggle,” John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Monday.
Gulam Bahauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, told Reuters there was fighting in 25 of the 34 provinces and 60,000 families had been displaced over the past two months, with most seeking refuge in Kabul.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said reports of violations that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity were emerging, including “deeply disturbing reports” of the summary execution of surrendering government troops.