- U.S., allies scramble to evacuate their citizens
- Biden says U.S. never meant to nation-build in Afghanistan
- Islamist group seeks to project more moderate image
- Hundreds of Afghan soldiers flee to Uzbekistan
KABUL, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Thousands of people desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul's airport on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the United States to pause evacuations, as President Joe Biden confronted mounting criticism over the U.S. withdrawal.
Chaotic scenes at the airport included a group clinging to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied on the single runway. One person appeared to fall from the plane during takeoff, according to television footage.
U.S. troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating U.S diplomats and embassy staff, a U.S. official said.
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At least five people were reported killed, although a witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A U.S. official told Reuters two gunmen had been killed by U.S. forces after they appeared to fire into the crowd.
A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one member of the U.S. military was wounded.
U.S. authorities said evacuation flights resumed on Monday evening, after several hours of delay when a German plane was diverted to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and another was forced to circle over the city.
The Taliban's rapid conquest of Kabul followed Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war - the nation's longest - that he described as costing more than $1 trillion.
The speed at which Afghan cities fell, in days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence, and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights, especially women's rights, have sparked criticism.
In a televised address on Monday afternoon, Biden defended his decision, insisting he had had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly in what he called Afghanistan's civil war or follow through on an agreement to depart negotiated by Republican former President Donald Trump.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said. "After 20 years I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That's why we're still there."
He blamed the Taliban's takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled the country and the Afghan army's unwillingness to fight.
The Democrat has faced a barrage of criticism, from even his own diplomats, over his handling of the U.S. exit, pulling out troops and then sending back thousands to help with the evacuation.
"Afghanistan is lost ... every terrorist around the world is cheering," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky.
One of Biden's fellow Democrats, Senator Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee chairman, said he wanted answers about why Washington had not been better prepared for a worst-case scenario.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the hasty pullout of U.S. troops had a "serious negative impact," China's state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability. read more
Blinken also spoke on Monday with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about ensuring regional stability, the State Department said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed. His whereabouts were unknown on Monday and the State Department declined to say whether it still viewed him as president.
The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of "chilling" curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls.
Former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said he was headed to Doha to meet with a Taliban delegation on Tuesday, accompanied by former President Hamid Karzai and the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Al Jazeera TV reported.
Envoys from the United States, China and other nations had been meeting with Afghan government negotiators and Taliban representatives in Qatar for peace talks in the days leading up to the Taliban's capture of Kabul.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Dunya News that the group would improve the security of Kabul and "respect the rights of women and minorities as per Afghan norms and Islamic values."
Shaheen added the new regime would ensure representation of all ethnicities and that the Taliban were keen to work with the international community to reconstruct the country.
AFGHAN SOLDIERS FLEE
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others, melted away.
U.S. officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied frontline soldiers.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled to Uzbekistan with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters during the weekend, including one aircraft that collided with an escorting Uzbek fighter jet, causing both to crash, Uzbekistan said.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had authorized the deployment of another battalion to Kabul that would bring the number of troops guarding the evacuation to about 6,000.
Shaheen said on Twitter that the group's fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.
"Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen," he said.
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