Published 2 hours ago BBC.COM
Taliban fighters have captured Mazar-i-Sharif, the last major city in northern Afghanistan which was still under government control.
The fall of the traditional anti-Taliban bastion marked a major gain for the militants, who have been advancing at speed as US-led forces withdraw.
President Ashraf Ghani travelled to the city just days ago to rally troops.
The Taliban are now in control of much of the country and are edging closer to the capital Kabul.
More than a quarter of a million people have been displaced by the violence, and many have fled to Kabul in the hope of finding safety.
Women in areas captured by the Taliban have described being forced to wear burkas and the militants are also reported to have beaten and lashed people for breaking social rules.
Western countries are scrambling to evacuate their citizens.
How did Mazar-i-Sharif fall?
Local officials said Mazar-i-Sharif – the capital of Balkh province and fourth largest city in Afghanistan – fell largely without a fight.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from Balkh, told the Associated Press news agency that the national army were the first to surrender, which then prompted pro-government forces and other militia to give up.
Mazar-i-Sharif is a major economic centre that lies close to the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The last time the Taliban took the city was in the 1990s.
Ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and prominent ethnic Tajik leader Atta Mohammad Noor are reported to have fled the province.
Footage shared on social media appeared to show Taliban militants inside Mr Dostum’s empty house.
Following crisis talks with Mr Ghani earlier this week, Mr Dostum struck a defiant tone, saying: “The Taliban have come to the north several times but they were always trapped.”
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Mr Noor blamed government forces for the defeat, saying they handed their weapons and equipment to the Taliban.
He said he and Mr Dostum were in a “safe place”.
One resident of Mazar-i-Sharif spoke to the BBC of his fear as the Taliban made their way through the city.
“They are going door to door and we are at home and unfortunately we can’t do anything,” he said. “We are very afraid. My child is very afraid and my wife is crying now. What should we do tomorrow?”
- EXPLAINER: Why the Taliban is gaining ground so quickly
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Other areas also fell to the Taliban on Saturday, including the capitals of Paktika and Kunar provinces.
Unverified footage from the city of Asadabad, in Kunar, showed people waving the Taliban flag and walking through the streets.
The Taliban are now in control of more than half the provincial capitals in the country. The only major cities to remain under government control are Kabul and Jalalabad.
In Kabul, people who had fled the Taliban offensive could do little but wait with apprehension to see what comes next.
Some reported that militant commanders elsewhere were demanding families hand over unmarried girls and women to become wives for their fighters.
Muzhda, 35, a single woman who fled from Parwan to Kabul with her two sisters, said she would take her own life rather than let the Taliban force her to marry.
“I am crying day and night,” she told AFP news agency.
Also in the capital, residents formed long queues at banks trying to withdraw their savings. Some branches had reportedly already run out of money.
There were also reports of a riot at Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of the capital, with local residents saying gunfire was heard from the facility.
What’s the Afghan government doing to stop the Taliban?
In a pre-recorded TV address earlier on Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani said a top priority was the remobilisation of the Afghan armed forces to prevent further destruction and displacement of people.
Mr Ghani said he would not let a war that was “imposed” on people cause more deaths, as he praised the “courageous” security forces.https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.43.6/iframe.htmlmedia captionPresident Ashraf Ghani: ”The reintegration of the security and defence forces is our priority”
The speech came amid speculation by some that Mr Ghani may have been about to announce his resignation.
The UN has appealed to neighbouring countries to keep their borders open so that displaced Afghans can reach safety. UN Secretary General António Guterres said the situation was spinning out of control.
Violence in the country has escalated in recent weeks now that US-led forces have all but withdrawn following 20 years of military operations.
US President Joe Biden said some 5,000 American troops were being deployed “to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel, and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban.”
About 600 British troops are due to arrive in the city this weekend to help with the withdrawal of UK citizens. They will also assist the relocation of Afghans who helped British forces and now risk reprisals from the Taliban.
Other Western countries are also evacuating their nationals, scaling back their presence in Afghanistan and in some cases closing their embassies altogether.
Twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan – what happened when?
From 9/11, to intense fighting on the ground, and now full withdrawal of US-led forces, here’s what happened.
11 September 2001
Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, carries out the largest terror attack ever conducted on US soil.
Four commercial airliners are hijacked. Two are flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, which collapses. One hits the Pentagon building in Washington, and one crashes into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.
First air strikes
7 October 2001
A US-led coalition bombs Taliban and al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan. Targets include Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
The Taliban, who took power after a decade-long Soviet occupation was followed by civil war, refuse to hand over Bin Laden. Their air defences and small fleet of fighter aircraft are destroyed.
Fall of Kabul
13 November 2001
The Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban rebels backed by coalition forces, enters Kabul as the Taliban flee the city.
By the 13 November 2001, all Taliban have either fled or been neutralised. Other cities quickly fall.
26 January 2004
After protracted negotiations at a “loya jirga” or grand assembly, the new Afghan constitution is signed into law. The constitution paves the way for presidential elections in October 2004.
Hamid Karzai becomes president
7 December 2004
Hamid Karzai, the leader of the Popalzai Durrani tribe, becomes the first president under the new constitution. He serves two five-year terms as president.
UK troops deployed to Helmand
British troops arrive in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the country.
Their initial mission is to support reconstruction projects, but they are quickly drawn into combat operations. More than 450 British troops lose their lives in Afghanistan over the course of the conflict.
17 February 2009
US President Barack Obama approves a major increase in the number of troops sent to Afghanistan. At their peak, they number about 140,000.
The so-called “surge” is modelled on US strategy in Iraq where US forces focussed on protecting the civilian population as well as killing insurgent fighters.
Osama Bin Laden killed
2 May 2011
The leader of al-Qaeda is killed in an assault by US Navy Seals on a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan. Bin Laden’s body is removed and buried at sea. The operation ends a 10-year hunt led by the CIA. The confirmation that Bin Laden had been living on Pakistani soil fuels accusations in the US that Pakistan is an unreliable ally in the war on terror.
Death of Mullah Omar
23 April 2013
The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, dies. His death is kept secret for more than two years.
According to Afghan intelligence, Mullah Omar dies of health problems at a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Pakistan denies that he was in the country.
Nato ends combat operations
28 December 2014
At a ceremony in Kabul, Nato ends its combat operations in Afghanistan. With the surge now over, the US withdraws thousands of troops. Most of those who remain focus on training and supporting the Afghan security forces.
The Taliban launch a series of suicide attacks, car bombings and other assaults. The parliament building in Kabul, and the city of Kunduz are attacked. Islamic State militants begin operations in Afghanistan.
Death toll announcement
25 January 2019
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says more than 45,000 members of his country’s security forces have been killed since he became leader in 2014. The figure is far higher than previously thought.
US signs deal with Taliban
29 February 2020
The US and the Taliban sign an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, in Doha, Qatar. The US and Nato allies agree to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.
Date for final withdrawal
11 September 2021
US forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, exactly 20 years since 9/11. There are strong indications that the withdrawal may be complete before the official deadline.