Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country as his government collapsed and Taliban militants moved on Kabul, reportedly gaining control of half of the capital's districts and apparently taking over the Presidential Palace while diplomatic missions scrambled to evacuate their personnel.
The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Afghanistan on August 16.
Government sources confirmed to RFE/RL that Ghani flew in to Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, before taking off to a different destination that was immediately unknown.
In a Facebook message, Ghani said he had fled the country to avoid "a flood of bloodshed" and that the Taliban had won "the judgement of the sword and guns" but they had not won "the legitimacy of hearts."
Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera television broadcast live from the presidential palace in Kabul, where a group of what appeared to be Taliban leaders were sitting at a desk surrounded by heavily armed standing fighters, while a translator said the militants were voicing satisfaction that the palace had fallen without bloodshed.
Earlier, Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, confirmed Ghani's departure from Kabul in a video message on Facebook.
"He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable," Abdullah said, referring to Ghani as "former president," although Ghani has not announced his resignation.
The militants have vowed not to take the capital by force, as talks with senior officials were said to be under way on a peaceful transfer of power.
It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban is negotiating. The negotiators on the government side included former President Hamid Karzai, Hizb-e Islami political and paramilitary group leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
Karzai himself appeared in a video posted online, his three young daughters around him, saying he remained in Kabul. "We are trying to solve the issue of Afghanistan with the Taliban leadership peacefully," he said.
The U.S. Embassy said the Kabul airport, where diplomats, officials, and other Afghans had taken refuge, had come under fire, and U.S. military officials later said the airport was now closed to commercial flights as military evacuations continue.
"The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly, including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place," a U.S. Embassy security alert said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the militant group, said the Taliban ordered its fighters to enter the city to prevent looting after local police deserted their posts, despite earlier assurances that the militants would not enter the city.
By the evening, a spokesman for the Taliban said militants were in control of 11 of Kabul's 22 districts.
Civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women's rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at ATMs to withdraw their life savings, while diplomatic missions scrambled to move their personnel closer to the airport.
Smoke rose near the U.S. diplomatic mission as staff destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Two Taliban officials told Reuters there would be no transitional government and the Taliban said it was waiting for the Western-backed government to surrender peacefully.
A hospital in the capital, meanwhile, said more than 40 people wounded in clashes on the outskirts were being treated, but there did not appear to be major fighting.The U.S. Embassy staff in Kabul were being moved on August 15, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, as Western states are speeding up the evacuation of their embassy staff in Kabul. The Dutch and Swedish missions have also reportedly moved to the airport.
Earlier on August 15, the insurgents took control of the key eastern city of Jalalabad less than 24 hours after seizing the major northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, leaving the Afghan capital as the last major urban area under government control.
As of August 15, the insurgents were in control of 28 out of 34 provincial capital in the war-torn country.
Spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Al-Jazeera that the group was prepared to wait "a day, two days, a week" to achieve a peaceful transition of power.
The militant Islamist group would protect the rights of women, as well as freedoms for media workers and diplomats, he said, adding, "We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe."
The rapid advance of the Taliban has raised particular concerns about what it might mean for Afghanistan's women. In Kabul, the head of Afghan news service Tolo News, Lotfullah Najafizada, tweeted an image of a man covering up pictures of women painted on a wall.North of Kabul, the Taliban on August 15 captured the Bagram air base, the largest military base in the country and home to a prison housing thousands of inmates, without resistance.
The U.S. military vacated Bagram last month, handing it over to the Afghan military.
"As the Taliban entered the military base, Afghan forces left the base, and Bagram airport is now under Taliban control," General Nawidullah Mirzayee, commander of Bagram air base, told Radio Azadi.
The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Afghanistan early on August 16 at the request of Estonia and Norway.
Council diplomats said August 15 that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief council members on the latest situation following the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
The Taliban took control of Jalalabad early on August 15 without a fight, cutting off Kabul to the east. The militants posted photos online showing themselves in the governor's office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province.
Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from Nangarhar Province, told AP that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there.
The militants took also Maidan Shar, the capital of Maidan Wardak, only some 90 kilometers from Kabul, a provincial council member told Radio Azadi.
The Taliban has made rapid gains over the last week, sweeping through the country as U.S.-led forces withdraw and pressuring Afghanistan's government.
The offensive accelerated in the last week, shocking Western governments as the Afghan military's defenses appeared to collapse. The United States and Britain are deploying additional troops to help evacuate their citizens and Afghans who worked for them.
U.S. forces began arriving in Kabul the previous day after President Joe Biden on August 14 authorized the deployment of 5,000 troops to help evacuate citizens, ensure an "orderly and safe" drawdown of military personnel, and keep control of the airport.
Biden announced the additional troops in a statement that also defended the rapid U.S. pullout and argued against prolonging the U.S. mission.
"Over our country's 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history," he said.
"One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me," he said.
Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover in an interview with AP from Mazar-e Sharif before it fell.
"There will be no place for women," said Mazari, who governs a district near the northern city. "In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes."
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and RFE/RL's Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection