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Reports Of Taliban Violence In Afghanistan As Ghani Denies Theft

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Taliban fighters stand guard at an entrance gate outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on August 17.

The Taliban, seeking to consolidate its grip on power following a blitz offensive that brought most of Afghanistan under its rule and sent the government fleeing, violently broke up a rare protest in eastern Afghanistan as an exodus from the country continues with dozens of evacuation flights leaving Kabul.

As hundreds more people, many of whom helped U.S.-led foreign forces over two decades, boarded planes and left the war-torn country on August 18 from the Kabul airport, President Ashraf Ghani resurfaced in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) after days of uncertainty over his whereabouts, reiterating that he had fled Afghanistan to prevent bloodshed and denying he stole money.

At the airport in Kabul, U.S. and British troops oversaw the massive evacuation after chaos earlier in the week forced the airfield, which is the country's only functioning port of exit for flights out of the country, to temporarily close.

The United States has sent military reinforcements to protect the evacuation of foreigners and Afghan civilians, with troop numbers swelling to 4,000 on August 17 after the airport was temporarily closed because thousands of panicked Afghans flooded the airfield.

After seizing the capital, Kabul, following a blistering offensive that swept up cities and toppled the Western-backed government, the Taliban said on August 17 that it wanted peace and an inclusive government -- within the values of Islam. They vowed no revenge against opponents and to respect women's rights but within the framework of Islamic law.

In the capital, there have been signs of life cautiously resuming, with Kabul-based journalist Ali M. Latifi saying early in the day that he saw stores and restaurants reopening.

Another journalist said that Kabul’s "famous ice cream carts started playing their loud music again this morning."

However, video reports showed some militants in the capital whipping people who were trying to make their way through massive crowds to get to the airport, while gunshots could be heard in the background.

A NATO security official told Reuters that 17 people were wounded on August 18 in a stampede at a gate to the airport. Both Taliban and U.S. officials said they had fired warning shots into the air to disperse crowds.

The militants on August 18 also quashed a rare public show of dissent in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where video footage showed militants firing shots and attacking dozens of people who had gathered in support of the black, red, and green Afghan national flag.

A reporter for a local news agency said he and a TV cameraman from another agency were beaten by the Taliban as they tried to cover the unrest.

Reuters quoted witnesses as saying three people were killed in the violence.

Anti-Taliban protests also took place in the cities of Kunar and Khost, with demonstrators waving Afghan flags, the BBC reported.

There's been no armed opposition to the Taliban so far, but the Afghan ambassador to Tajikistan on August 18 rejected the group's rule and said the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, an area which has not yet been conquered by the militants, would serve as a stronghold for resistance led by First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh.

Saleh, a former Afghan spy chief and interior minister, said on August 17 that he was the "legitimate caretaker president" after Ghani fled.

Videos from Panjshir, a former stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias that fought the Taliban in the late 1990s, appear to show potential resistance leaders gathering there.

The unverified videos showed a caravan of motorbikes with flags of the Northern Alliance, of which Saleh had been a member.

Ghani, in a message from the U.A.E., said he had left Kabul to prevent bloodshed and denied reports that he took large sums of money with him as he departed the presidential palace.

"If I had stayed, I would be witnessing bloodshed in Kabul," Ghani said in a video streamed on Facebook, his first public comments since it was confirmed he was in the U.A.E.

He left on the advice of government officials, he added.

The U.A.E. said Ghani and his family were welcomed into the country on "humanitarian grounds," but gave no further details on where he had been since fleeing Afghanistan. It also did not say how long he would stay in the Middle Eastern country.

Unconfirmed reports had Ghani flying to a Central Asian country following his hasty departure from the capital on August 15 in the face of the Taliban advance. Ghani and his government came under blistering criticism both from domestic and foreign leaders for their lack of will to lead an organized resistance to the militants' advance.

As Afghanistan adjusts to its new reality, Western powers face the decision whether to deal with the Islamist insurgents they had fought for nearly 20 years.

A member of the Taliban political office in Qatar, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwah, said that leaders of the group were in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar to discuss the formation of an internationally acceptable government for Afghanistan.

The Taliban has said it had been in touch with Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, former President Hamid Karzai, and warlord Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who leads the Hizb-e Islami political and paramilitary group.

A member of the Taliban administration who declined to be identified said on August 18 that a senior leader of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network militant group, Anas Haqqani, had met with Karzai, who was accompanied by Abdullah. He did not provide further details, but a meeting of senior Taliban leaders with Karzai and Abdullah was confirmed by the SITE monitoring group.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the EU was suspending payments of development assistance to Afghanistan "until we clarify the situation" with Taliban leaders.

That move comes as the United States decided to freeze Afghan central bank reserves in U.S. accounts, depriving the Taliban of billions of dollars.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, the BBC, and dpa
This story also includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.
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