Evacuations from Afghanistan gather momentum as Taliban promise peace

At least three people were killed in anti-Taliban protests in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, witnesses said, as the militant group tried to set up a government and Western countries stepped up evacuations of diplomats and civilians.

Canadian Armed Forces set to resume flights in and out of Kabul 'soon,' according to defence department

Evacuees from Afghanistan arrive in an Airbus A400 transport aircraft of the German Air Force Luftwaffe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Tuesday. (Marc Tessensohn/Twitter@Bw_Einsatz/Reuters)

At least three people were killed in anti-Taliban protests in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, witnesses said, as the militant group tried to set up a government and Western countries stepped up evacuations of diplomats and civilians.

More than a dozen people were injured after Taliban militants opened fire on protesters in the eastern city, two witnesses and a former police official told Reuters.

The witnesses said the deaths took place when local residents tried to install Afghanistan's national flag at a square in Jalalabad, about 150 kilometres from the capital on the main road to Pakistan.

Taliban spokespeople were not immediately reachable for comment.

As the Taliban consolidated power, one of their leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 10 years. A Taliban official said leaders would show themselves to the world, unlike in the past when they lived in secret.

"Slowly, gradually, the world will see all our leaders," the senior Taliban official told Reuters. "There will be no shadow of secrecy."

But thousands of Afghans, many of whom helped U.S.-led foreign forces over two decades, are desperate to leave the country.

About 5,000 diplomats, security staff, aid workers and Afghans have been evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours, a Western official told Reuters on Wednesday.

Canada to resume evacuation flights 'shortly'

The official did not give a breakdown of how many Afghans were among the more than 5,000 people to leave nor was it clear if that tally included more than 600 Afghan men, women and children who flew out on Sunday, crammed into a U.S. military C-17 cargo aircraft.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Department of National Defence confirmed that Canadian Armed Forces flights to and from Hamid Karzai International Airport would resume "shortly."

In an email statement, the department said flights will continue "as long as the security situation on the ground permits, and will focus on evacuating Canadian citizens, permanent residents and Afghan Nationals who have an enduring relationship with Canada's mission in Afghanistan."

It did not specify when the flights would resume. 

Refugees from Afghanistan and Canadian citizens board a bus after being processed at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday after arriving indirectly from Afghanistan. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday afternoon that there were about 4,500 U.S. military personnel in Kabul and there "have been no hostile interactions with the Taliban and our lines of communication with Taliban commanders remain open."

He told reporters during a briefing from Arlington, Va., that the airport was also secure and the goal of U.S. forces is to increase the capacity for evacuations every day, calling it "a moral obligation" to help those Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war. 

The Taliban, fighting since their 2001 ouster to expel foreign forces, seized Kabul on Sunday after a lightning offensive as U.S.-led Western forces withdrew under a deal that included a Taliban promise not to attack them as they leave.

U.S. forces running the airport had to stop flights on Monday after thousands of frightened Afghans swamped the facility looking for a flight out. Flights resumed on Tuesday as the situation was brought under control.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

Taliban speaks to reporters

As Baradar was returning, a Taliban spokesperson held the movement's first news briefing since their return to Kabul, suggesting they would impose their laws more softly than during their earlier time in power, between 1996 and 2001.

"We don't want any internal or external enemies," Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's main spokesperson, told reporters.

Women would be allowed to work and study and "will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam," he said.

WATCH | Afghans skeptical of Taliban's claiming to want peace:

Afghans skeptical of Taliban’s claims of change

11 months ago
Duration 2:01
The Taliban claims they've changed their brutal ways, but after taking control of most of Afghanistan, people are skeptical that they will respect human rights, based on their track record.

During their rule, also guided by sharia religious law, the Taliban stopped women from working. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out, and then only when accompanied by a male relative.

Ramiz Alakbarov, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview the Taliban had assured the United Nations it can pursue humanitarian work in Afghanistan, which is suffering from a severe drought.

The European Union said it would only co-operate with Taliban authorities if they respected fundamental rights, including those of women.

Some women ordered to leave jobs

Within Afghanistan, women expressed skepticism. Afghan girls' education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, was wary of Taliban promises. "They have to walk the talk. Right now they are not doing that," she told Reuters.

Several women were ordered to leave their jobs during the Taliban's rapid advance across Afghanistan.

Mujahid said the Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and government officials, and were granting an amnesty for ex-soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.

"Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors," he said, adding that there was a "huge difference" between the Taliban now and 20 years ago.

He also said families trying to flee the country at the airport should return home and nothing would happen to them.

Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul on Tuesday. (The Associated Press)

Politicians debate how to move forward

Mujahid's conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the "legitimate caretaker president" after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and vowed not to bow to Kabul's new rulers.

Ghani defended his decision to flee, describing it as the only way to prevent bloodshed. He also denied claims by his country's ambassador to Tajikistan that he had stolen millions of dollars from state funds.

Ghani posted a video on his Facebook page late Wednesday confirming that he was in the United Arab Emirates. He thanked Afghan security forces in his message, but also said that the "failure of the peace process" led to the Taliban snatching power.

Saleh appears to have gone underground, and it is unclear how much support he can muster in a country exhausted by decades of conflict.

U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they had agreed to hold a virtual meeting of Group of Seven leaders next week to discuss a common strategy and approach to Afghanistan.

The decision by Biden, a Democrat, to stick to the withdrawal deal struck last year by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump has stirred widespread criticism at home and among U.S. allies.

Biden said he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on Trump's withdrawal deal. He blamed the Taliban takeover on Afghan leaders who fled and the army's unwillingness to fight.

Canada has set up a special immigration program for Afghans still in the war-torn country and has several evacuation flights to date, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said. It also has established a separate stream for refugees who've made it out of Afghanistan and is promising to resettle up to 20,000 people.

With files from The Associated Press