KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) â€” The Taliban have blown up the statue of a Shiite militia leader who fought against them during Afghanistanâ€™s civil war in the 1990s, according to photos circulating on Wednesday, sowing further doubt about their claims to have become more moderate.
The insurgentsâ€™ every action in their sudden sweep to power is being watched closely. They insist they have changed and wonâ€™t impose the same draconian restrictions they did when they last ruled Afghanistan, all but eliminating womenâ€™s rights, carrying out public executions and banning television and music.
They also promised not to seek revenge against those who have opposed them.
But many Afghans remain deeply skeptical, and thousands are racing to the airport and borders to flee the country. Many others are hiding inside their homes, fearful after prisons and armories were emptied during the insurgentsâ€™ blitz across the country.
On Wednesday, groups of fighters carrying long guns patrolled a well-to-do neighborhood of the capital, Kabul, that is home to many embassies as well as mansions of the Afghan elite. The Taliban have promised to maintain security, but many Afghans are as afraid of them as they are of potential chaos.
In a rare, early show of dissent, dozens of people gathered in the eastern city of Jalalabad and raised the Afghan national flag in an anti-Taliban demonstration, according to Salim Ahmad, a local resident. He said the Taliban fired in the air to disperse the crowd. There were no immediate reports of any casualties.
The insurgents have raised their own flag â€” a white banner with Islamic inscriptions â€” in the territories they have seized.
As Afghans and the international community look to see if the Taliban will make good on their promises, photos circulated on social media of the destroyed statue. It depicted Abdul Ali Mazari, a militia leader killed by the Taliban in 1996, when the Islamic militants seized power from rival warlords. Mazari was a champion of Afghanistanâ€™s ethnic Hazara minority, Shiites who were persecuted under the Sunni Talibanâ€™s earlier rule.
The statue stood in the central Bamyan province, where the Taliban infamously blew up two massive 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha carved into a mountain in 2001, shortly before the U.S.-led invasion that drove them from power. The Taliban claimed the Buddhas violated Islamâ€™s prohibition on idolatry.
Another Taliban promise being closely watched is their vow to prevent Afghanistan from again being used as a base for planning terrorist attacks. That was enshrined in a 2020 peace deal with the Trump administration that paved the way for the drawdown of American troops, the last of whom are supposed to leave at the end of the month.
When the Taliban were last in power they sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida while they planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. U.S. officials fear al-Qaida and other groups could reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan now that the Taliban are back in power.
The Taliban have pledged to form an â€œinclusive, Islamic governmentâ€ and have been holding talks with former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government. Mohammad Yusof Saha, a spokesman for Karzai, said preliminary meetings with Taliban officials would facilitate eventual negotiations with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top Taliban political leader.
Photos circulating online Wednesday showed Karzai and Abdullah meeting with Anas Haqqani, a senior leader in a powerful Taliban faction. The U.S. branded the Haqqani network a terrorist group in 2012, and its involvement in a future government could trigger international sanctions.
Amid the uncertainty, thousands of Afghans have tried to flee the country in recent days, and the U.S. and its allies have struggled to manage a chaotic withdrawal from the country. The Taliban took over the civilian side of the Kabul international airport on Tuesday and have used force to try to control the crowds.
Hundreds of people were outside the airport early Wednesday. The Taliban demanded to see documents before allowing the rare passenger inside. Many of the people outside did not appear to have passports, and each time the gate opened even an inch, dozens tried to push through. The Taliban fired occasional warning shots to disperse them.
The U.S. Embassy has meanwhile relocated to the military side of the airport, where it is coordinating the airlift of diplomats, foreigners and Afghans who worked with the Americans and now fear reprisal.
The British government said it will welcome up to 5,000 Afghan refugees this year, and a total of 20,000 Afghans will be offered a way to settle in the U.K. in the coming years.
â€œWe owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have worked with us to make Afghanistan a better place over the last 20 years,â€ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said late Tuesday.
The head of Afghanistanâ€™s Central Bank meanwhile said the countryâ€™s supply of physical U.S. dollars is â€œclose to zero.â€ Afghanistan has some $9 billion in reserves, Ajmal Ahmady tweeted, but most is held outside the country, with some $7 billion held in U.S. Federal Reserve bonds, assets and gold.
Ahmady said the country did not receive a planned cash shipment amid the Taliban offensive.
â€œThe next shipment never arrived,â€ he wrote. â€œSeems like our partners had good intelligence as to what was going to happen.â€
He said the lack of U.S. dollars will likely lead to a depreciation of the local currency, the afghani, hurting the countryâ€™s poor. Afghans have been lining up outside ATM machines for days, with many pulling out their life savings.
Ahmady said the Taliban will struggle to access the countryâ€™s reserves because of international sanctions.
The â€œTaliban won militarily â€” but now have to govern,â€ he wrote. â€œIt is not easy.â€
Faiez reported from Istanbul, Gannon from Guelph, Canada, and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Sylvia Hui in London and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.
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