UPDATE 11:40 a.m. ET:
The Taliban began entering city of Kabul, the capital of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, on Sunday, just hours after claiming they would wait for the Afghan government to agree to a peaceful transfer of power.
CNN News 18 contributing editor Aditya Raj Kaul tweeted, “#BREAKING: Taliban in a fresh statement says it has decided to enter Kabul even after deciding this morning that they shall wait for transition of power. Says decision taken so that abusers/thieves don’t get mixed and harass common people. Taliban asks common people not to fear.”
The Taliban decision to enter Kabul comes amid reports Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Reuters reported, based on the comments of an Afghan Interior Ministry official, that Ghani fled for neighboring Tajikistan.
Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum tweeted, “Latest security alert from US Embassy in Kabul: ‘We are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place. The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan has suspended consular operations effective immediately. Do not come to the Embassy or airport at this time.'”
U.S. Military helicopters began flying flights out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sunday, as Taliban forces gathered at the outskirts of the capital city of the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
As the Taliban gathered in the Kabul outskirts, U.S. military helicopters evacuated personnel from the U.S. Embassy in the city.
Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov tweeted a photo of the evacuation efforts taking place at the U.S. Embassy. “And so it goes. The end.”
On Saturday, President Joe Biden announced the deployment of an additional 1,000 U.S. troops in the country, in addition to the 3,000 troops deployed earlier in the week and the 1,000 troops that were already in the country; bringing the total U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to 5,000. The new U.S. troop deployments are intended to provide added security for embassy staff evacuating the city.
Smoke could be seen rising from the U.S. Embassy grounds in Kabul on Sunday as embassy employees burned sensitive documents.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the group has not just yet entered Kabul city itself but the Taliban is waiting for the Afghan government to agree to a peaceful transfer of power to Taliban control.
In a video message, Afghan Minister of the Interior Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal reportedly said “The Afghan people should not worry… There will be no attack on the city and there will be a peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government.”
The Associated Press reported Taliban negotiators went to the presidential palace on Sunday to discuss the transfer, according to an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official described the closed-door negotiations as “tense.”
The apparent negotiations for the Afghan government’s surrender come as U.S. troops are still in the process of withdrawing from the country. U.S. combat operations are set to conclude on August 31 and the full U.S. withdrawal is set to conclude by September 11.
The evacuations at the U.S. Embassy began overnight.
Stars & Stripes reporter and photographer Phillip Walter Wellman tweeted, “Staff being evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul overnight.”
Another Twitter user said, “American CH-47s over Kabul now, doing shuttle runs between US embassy and airport.”
The Taliban’s arrival on the outskirts of Kabul comes well ahead of the timeline U.S. officials anticipated for the Taliban’s territorial gains throughout the country. On Wednesday, Reuters reported one U.S. intelligence analysis projected Kabul wouldn’t fall to the Taliban for another 90 days. On Thursday, a day later, the New York Times reported expectations that Kabul would only hold out against the Taliban for 30 days.
On Saturday, the Taliban captured its 21st of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. The Taliban captured all 21 of those key capitals in just over a week’s time.
One Twitter user said, “Capital Kabul right now, Traffic blocked, everyone is in a hurry and are rushing to their homes. #Kabul #Afghanistan.”
The Associated Press reported Afghan government forces at Bagram Air Base surrendered control of the base to the Taliban on Sunday. The last U.S. forces left control of Bagram Air Base to the Afghan government one month ago.
Bagram Air Base also includes a prison housing 5,000 Taliban and Islamic state inmates. Those inmates have since been freed by the Taliban.
NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel tweeted, “Prisoners leaving Kabul jail after being broken out by Taliban.”