Defiant Afghans wave flags as Taliban
Defiant protesters waved Afghan flags at scattered rallies Thursday to mark the country's independence day, as the son of the nation's most famous resistance fighter vowed to take up arms against the newly returned Taliban regime.
Tens of thousands of people have tried to flee Afghanistan since the hardline Islamist militants swept into the capital Kabul on Sunday, completing a stunning rout of government forces after a two-decade insurgency.
The United States said Thursday that it had airlifted about 7,000 people out of the country in the past five days - and that the Taliban did appear to be cooperating to allow Afghan nationals registered for special US visas to reach the airport.
The movement's leaders have repeatedly vowed not to take revenge against their opponents, while seeking to project an image of tolerance.
But a confidential United Nations document, provided by its threat assessment consultants and seen by AFP, said the Taliban have been conducting "targeted door-to-door visits" searching for people they want to apprehend.
Most at risk are people who had central roles in the Afghan military, police and intelligence units, but those who worked for US and NATO forces were also included on "priority lists", the report said.
Militants are also screening individuals on the way to Kabul airport and have set up checkpoints in major cities, including the capital and Jalalabad, the document alleges.
Memories of the Taliban's brutal regime of the 1990s - which saw music and television banned, people stoned to death and women confined to their homes - have caused panic about what lies ahead for Afghans.
In the capital Kabul, groups of men and women unfurled the black, red and green tricolour national flag on the anniversary of Afghanistan's independence.
"My demand from the international community, the (UN) Security Council, is that they turn their attention to Afghanistan and not allow the achievements of 20 years to be wasted," said one protester.
But the Taliban - who have raised their own black and white banner over government buildings - have already signalled they will not stand for any challenges, breaking up a flag-waving rally in Jalalabad on Wednesday with gunfire.
In the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul - the country's last holdout - Ahmad Massoud, the son of Afghanistan's most famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, said he was "ready to follow in his father's footsteps".
"But we need more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies," Massoud said.
'A situation worse than death'
The United States, which successfully toppled the Taliban’s first regime in 2001 following the September 11 attacks, was just weeks away from completing its withdrawal from the country when the militants seized power at the weekend.
Now, that withdrawal is facing criticism at home and abroad, and more than 5,200 US troops are back on the ground to facilitate the airlift of American citizens and Afghan allies who worked with the US military over the last 20 years.
Chaos erupted at the airport this week, as frantic Afghans searched for a way to leave the country.
An Afghan sports federation announced a footballer for the national youth team had died after falling from a US plane he desperately clung to as it departed Kabul airport.
The Group of Seven and the heads of several UN agencies on Thursday echoed US calls for the Taliban to allow safe passage for those Afghans trying to leave, but Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the situation was improving.
"We have indications this morning that that process is working," he told reporters.
Unconfirmed reports on social media say several people have been killed as US forces and the Taliban - separated by an unofficial no-man's land - struggle to contain the desperate crowds.
"I went to the airport with my kids and family... the Taliban and Americans were shooting," said one man who until recently had worked for a foreign non-governmental organisation.
"Despite that, people were moving forward just because they knew a situation worse than death awaited them outside the airport."
'The system has changed'
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said the new regime would be "positively different" from their 1996-2001 stint.
But the rebrand was hard to believe for many.
On Thursday, an Afghan woman journalist made a desperate social media plea after she was barred from entering the TV station where she worked.
"The male employees... were allowed to enter the office, but I was told that I couldn't continue my duty because the system has been changed," news anchor Shabnam Dawran said, adding: "Our lives are under threat."
The United States ultimately led the invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban because they continued to provide sanctuary for Al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks.
The Taliban have continued to edge towards establishing a government, with co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar returning from exile and other senior figures meeting ex-president Hamid Karzai and other former government officials.
The hardline group said it wants "good diplomatic relations" with all countries, but will not accept any encroachment on its religious principles.
"We will not submit to the pressure of anyone," it said, in a statement published by SITE monitoring group.