The Taliban seized three more provincial capitals in Afghanistan, officials said on Wednesday, with tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes to escape the fighting.
The group now controls nine of the nation's 34 provincial capitals, an advance that comes amid the US withdrawal from the country.
The fall of the capitals of Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces to the northeast and Farah province to the west put increasing pressure on the country's central government to stop the advance.
While Kabul itself has not yet been directly threatened, the Taliban offensive continues to stretch Afghan security forces now largely fighting against the insurgents on their own.
The insurgents earlier captured six other provincial capitals in the country in less than a week, including Kunduz in Kunduz province — one of the country’s largest cities.
The fighting has led to tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes in the north of the country, to escape battles that have overwhelmed their towns and villages.
Thousands escape to Kabul
Families have flowed into the capital, Kabul, living in parks and streets with little food or water.
They described on Tuesday bombardment, gunfire and airstrikes pounding their neighbourhoods in multiple parts of the north, with civilians caught in the crossfire.
Some said that as the Taliban captured towns, they hunted down and killed male relatives of members of the police forces and quickly started imposing new restrictions on women.
Such atrocities have fueled alarm over a potential Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as the insurgents accelerate their advance capturing main cities for the first time in recent weeks.
But some of those who fled were equally furious at the government.
Fawzia Karimi fled to Kabul from Kunduz, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, where the Taliban have been advancing through neighbourhoods.
She said government forces didn’t fight when the insurgents overran her district, but were bombing the residential area now that it was in Taliban hands.
“If the government cannot do anything, it should just stop the bombardment and let the Taliban rule,” she said.
She left with her five children when an airstrike hit her neighbour’s home. Her 16-year-old son was killed in a crossfire three months ago.
Karimi was among hundreds of people from around the north who were crowded into Kabul’s main downtown park, Shahr-e-Naw.
Men, women and children have been sleeping for days outside on the ground in blazing summer heat. A few have blankets to pad the ground or sheets to hang up as curtains for some privacy.
The surge in displaced people has heightened international calls for pressure to stop the Taliban assault.
Families left without food
At least 60,000 people, more than half of them children, have fled their homes in Kunduz alone since the weekend, Save the Children said Tuesday. Some moved to calmer parts of Kunduz city, living outside without food, water or medical care, it said.
“Markets have been destroyed and are now mostly closed, leaving families without anywhere to get food,” the group’s country director Christopher Nyamandi said.
At least 27 children have been killed around the country in the past three days, the group said.
More than 17,000 people from the north have arrived in Kabul in the past two weeks, staying in parks, with relatives or on the streets, said Tamim Azimi, spokesman for the state ministry for disaster management.
After a 20-year Western military mission and billions of dollars spent training and shoring up Afghan forces, many are at odds to explain why the regular forces have collapsed, fleeing the battle sometimes by the hundreds.
The fighting has fallen largely to small groups of elite forces and the Afghan air force.