The Taliban have captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan in a major setback for the government.
The fall on Saturday of Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, hands the Taliban control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the center and east.
Earlier on Saturday, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani held urgent talks with local leaders and international partners on Saturday as Taliban fighters pushed closer to the capital, Kabul.
“As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people,” Ghani said in a brief televised address.
The fighters have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in a breakneck military operation less than three weeks before the United States is set to withdraw its last troops, raising fears of a full takeover or another Afghan civil war.
With the Taliban in control of two-thirds of the war-torn country, thousands have fled via the capital’s international airport. The US and European countries also started evacuating their embassy staff as the Taliban moves closer to the capital, Kabul.