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U.S. Airlift From Kabul Gains Speed As Afghans Defy Taliban In Several Cities


Afghans hold national flags as they celebrate Independence Day in Kabul on August 19.

The U.S. military has said that it has airlifted some 7,000 people out of Afghanistan over the past few days as demonstrators defied the newly installed Taliban rule for a second day in a row in several cities, taking to the streets and waving the national flag to mark the country's Independence Day.

Several casualties were reported as the Taliban resorted to violence against the demonstrators despite promises that it wants peace and an inclusive government -- within the values of Islam -- after seizing control of Kabul four days ago.

Deaths Reported As Afghans Unfurl Flags To Defy Taliban On Independence Day
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In the eastern city of Asadabad, a witness told Reuters that several people were killed when Taliban fighters fired on demonstrators waving the black, red, and green national flag at an Independence Day rally.

It was not clear whether the casualties came from the shooting or from the stampede it triggered.

"Hundreds of people came out on the streets," witness Mohammad Salim said from Asadabad, the capital of the eastern province of Kunar. "At first I was scared and didn't want to go but when I saw one of my neighbors joined in I took out the flag I have at home."

At another protest, in Nangarhar Province, video posted online purportedly showed one demonstrator with a gunshot wound, as onlookers tried to carry him away.

Protests were also reported in Kabul, the eastern city of Jalalabad, as well as Paktia and Kunar provinces, but there were no reports of violence.

"Our flag, our identity," a crowd of men and some women waving the national banner shouted in the capital, a video clip posted on social media showed.

The previous day, at least one person was killed during anti-Taliban protests in Jalalabad after the militants attacked demonstrators who were reportedly attempting to lower the group's banner and replace it with the Afghan flag.The Taliban marked Afghanistan's 1919 independence from Britain by issuing a statement declaring that "our jihadi resistance forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan."

First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taliban, expressed support for the protests, saying on Twitter, "Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation."

Saleh said earlier this week that he has remained in Afghanistan and was the "legitimate caretaker president" after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban captured Kabul. Ghani resurfaced in the United Arab Emirates on August 18, reiterating that he had fled to prevent bloodshed.

Streets in the capital were mainly calm on August 19, with armed fighters roaming Kabul on foot and in vehicles, as businesses started to reopen. Banks and government offices remain closed, however.

At the airport, the massive airlift operation continued with U.S. and British soldiers ensuring security.

But reports that Taliban fighters are manning checkpoints around the airfield and impeding Afghans from reaching the airfield have sparked panic among some who fear they won't be allowed to leave the country even as foreign governments ramp up evacuations.

Gunfire Outside Kabul Airport Amid Evacuation Chaos
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Major General Hank Taylor told the media that the U.S. military had airlifted out of Afghanistan some 7,000 people since August 14 as the Pentagon said the Taliban appeared to be cooperating with evacuation efforts from Kabul airport.

Taylor said that the pace of evacuating U.S. citizens, Afghans with U.S. immigrant visas, and other nationals had accelerated despite reports of the Taliban continuing to impede people trying to enter the airport gates.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the Taliban appeared to be cooperating to allow Afghan nationals who have registered for U.S. special immigrant visas to get to the airport gate.

"We have indications this morning that that process is working," Kirby said.

Taylor added that U.S. forces on the ground were in regular contact with Taliban officials to ensure that U.S. nationals have a safe passage to the airport.

Twelve giant C-17 cargo aircraft with 2,000 evacuees took off from the airport in the past 24 hours, he said.

The Americans now have more than 5,200 troops to secure the airport and the capacity to take as many as 9,000 people out every 24 hours. "We're ready to increase output and have scheduled aircraft departures accordingly," Taylor said.

Officials said this week that as many as 10,000 U.S. citizens remained in Kabul, and thousands of Afghans who had worked for U.S. forces were also seeking to flee to the United States.

The United States has moved nearly 12,000 people out of the country since July as the Taliban offensives picked up and Washington neared its own August 31 deadline for withdrawal from the country.

Taylor confirmed that US F-18 combat jets had been flying high-altitude missions over Kabul. "Those are overwatch flights over Kabul to ensure enhanced security," he said.

Kirby said the U.S. forces continue to aim for the completion of the airlift by August 31.

But on August 18 President Joe Biden said that U.S. troops could stay longer if necessary for the evacuations.

The shocking images of hundreds of Afghans clinging to U.S. military aircraft on August 16 at the Kabul airport were evoked on August 19, when it was reported that a member of Afghanistan's national youth soccer team, had died while attempting to stow away on a U.S. plane.

Turkey had offered to control and run the airport following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but the swift Taliban takeover has cast doubt on the plan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country still maintained its intention to operate the facility, and that Ankara was "open to any cooperation" with the Taliban.

"With the Taliban maintaining control over the country, a new picture appeared before us," he said in a television address. "Now we are making our plans according to these new realities."

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on August 19 that about 100 EU staff and 400 Afghans working with the bloc and their families had been evacuated. He also said hundreds more were still waiting to leave.

Addressing the European Parliament, he described the developments in Afghanistan as "a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for the Western values and credibility, and for the developing of international relations."

Meanwhile, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and other UN agencies accredited in Afghanistan have started to temporarily relocate to Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, despite Taliban pledges to protect diplomatic staff and UN personnel as part of a broader public relations bid to reshape its image and avoid international isolation.

The UN and its agencies have about 3,000 Afghan employees, in addition to international staff.

The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, has offered no details on how it will lead the country this time, other than to say policy will be guided by Shari'a law.

As Western powers face the decision whether to deal with the Islamist insurgents they had fought for nearly 20 years, the militants are in talks with senior officials of previous Afghan governments, but they face an increasingly precarious situation.

A UN official on August 19 warned of dire food shortages in the country of 38 million people reliant on imports and international aid.

"A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes," Mary Ellen McGroarty said. "This is really Afghanistan's hour of greatest need, and we urge the international community to stand by the Afghan people at this time."

The comments cane a day after the International Monetary Fund on August 18 suspended Afghanistan's access to $440 million in monetary reserves -- a move pushed for by the U.S. Treasury to prevent funds falling into Taliban hands.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace expressed concerns on August 19 that the events in Afghanistan will be perceived as Western weakness by adversaries such as Russia.

"That is something we should all worry about: if the West is seen not to have resolve and it fractures, then our adversaries like Russia find that encouraging," Wallace said.

"Around the world, Islamists will see what they will view as a victory and that will inspire other terrorists," he also said.

Asked about footage of a child being passed over a wall to Western soldiers at Kabul airport, Wallace said that Britain was unable to evacuate unaccompanied children from Afghanistan.

"You will find as you see in the footage...the child was taken -- that will be because the family will be taken as well."

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, and the BBC
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