Several reported killed as Taliban shoot at crowds waving Afghan flag

Several people have been killed after Taliban fighters shot at crowds waving the national flag at an independence day rally, leading to mass panic and a crush, a witness has said, a day after three people were killed in a similar protest.

Demonstrations in the city of Asadabad, in which white Taliban flags were torn down, were among the first signs of popular opposition to the Taliban since their stunning advance across the country and capture of the capital, Kabul, on Sunday.

It was unclear if the casualties resulted from the firing or from the crowd crush it triggered, said a witness, Mohammed Salim. “Hundreds of people came out on the streets,” Salim said. “Several people were killed and injured in the stampede and firing by the Taliban.” A Taliban spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Afghanistan celebrates its 1919 independence from British control on 19 August and there were signs it had galvanised dissent against the Taliban across the country.

Hundreds of protesters, including women, gathered in Kabul brandishing the national flag and shouting “our flag, our identity”. Taliban fighters surrounded some of protesters, shouting and firing rounds into the air in an attempt to disperse the crowds. In Abdul Haq Square, one protester climbed a flag pole to pull down the white Taliban flag and replaced it with the black, red and green national flag.

The previous day, three people had been killed when Taliban fighters fired at protesters waving the national flag in Jalalabad.

The Afghan vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taliban under his leadership, expressed support for the protests. “Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation,” he tweeted.

The crackdown on protests will raise fresh doubts about Taliban assurances that they have changed since their 1996-2001 rule when they severely oppressed women, staged public executions and blew up ancient Buddhist statues.

The airport in Kabul continued to be a scene of chaos and despair, as thousands of Afghans gathered in an attempt to flee the country but were held back by Taliban fighters and locked gates. Videos showed babies and toddlers being passed to the front of the crowds and handed to US soldiers manning the airport by parents desperate for their children to be taken out of Afghanistan.

Taliban and Nato officials said 12 people had been killed in and around the airport since Sunday. The Taliban official said the deaths were caused either by gunshots or in crowd crushes and he urged people still gathered at the gates of the facility to go home if they did not have the legal right to travel. “We don’t want to hurt anyone at the airport,” said the official, who declined to be named.

Facing criticism for his handling of the withdrawal, Joe Biden said on Wednesday that US troops may stay past a 31 August deadline so as to evacuate all Americans, and claimed there was no way for the US to pull out “without chaos ensuing”.

“If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden told ABC News, implying he would listen to US lawmakers who had pressed him to extend the deadline he had set for a final pullout.

Asked if he thought the handling of the crisis could have gone better, Biden said: “No.”

“We’re gonna go back in hindsight and look … but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in his first interview since the Taliban took Kabul.

The sentiment contradicts what Biden said weeks ago, when he said it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would be “overrunning everything and owning the whole country”.

It has also emerged that classified intelligence documents from the past few weeks gave multiple warnings to the Biden administration of the prospect of an imminent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the probable rapid collapse of Afghan troops, with Kabul portrayed as highly vulnerable. It raises questions as to why the US administration was not better prepared for security and evacuations.

The US said it had evacuated nearly 6,000 people from Afghanistan since Saturday but thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who want to leave remain and it is feared the slow speed of evacuations is putting lives at risk. Educated women, former US military translators and other Afghans most at risk from the Taliban appealed to the Biden administration to get them on evacuation flights as quickly as possible.

There have been multiple reports of Afghans and foreigners with passports and papers being turned away at airport checkpoints by Taliban fighters, leading to evacuation flights departing with empty seats.

“If we don’t sort this out, we’ll literally be condemning people to death,” said Marina Kielpinski LeGree, the American head of the nonprofit organisation Ascend.

Biden told ABC the Taliban were cooperating in helping to get Americans out of the country, but acknowledged “we’re having some more difficulty” in evacuating US-aligned Afghan citizens.

The president was asked what his response had been to images that emerged of packed US military planes taking off from Kabul airport as people clung on to them. At least two people apparently fell to their deaths.

Biden replied: “What I thought was: we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did.”

The humanitarian cost of the Taliban insurgency became increasingly apparent as ATMs ran out of cash and concerns were raised about food shortages. Though the Taliban have appealed for international aid to continue to flow into the country, which accounts for 42.9% of GDP, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) joined growing numbers of donors and lenders who said they would suspend funds going to Afghanistan.

The former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Sunday as Taliban troops entered Kabul, made his first appearance since it emerged he had been granted entry into the United Arab Emirates on “humanitarian grounds”.

Ghani, speaking in a video posted on Facebook, said he supported talks between the Taliban and former government officials, led by the former president Hamid Karzai. He said he was “in talks” to return to Afghanistan and was making efforts to “safeguard the rule of Afghans over our country”.

Looking pale and gaunt, Ghani denied he had betrayed Afghans by fleeing and said the Taliban entered Kabul despite an agreement not to.

“Do not believe whoever tells you that your president sold you out and fled for his own advantage and to save his own life,” said Ghani. “These accusations are baseless.”

He also denied reports he had taken money with him when he fled. “I was expelled from Afghanistan in such a way that I didn’t even get the chance to take my slippers off my feet and pull on my boots.”

Reuters contributed to this report

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