Embattled Afghan president flees country

International

The Latest developments on Afghanistan, where a Taliban blitz has taken large swaths of territory just weeks before the final pullout of American and NATO troops:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials say embattled President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country as the Taliban moved further into Kabul.

Two officials speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists told The Associated Press that Ghani flew out of the country. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed Ghani had left in an online video.

“He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah said.

Ghani’s whereabouts and destination are currently unknown.

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TORONTO — Canada has suspended diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and Canadian personnel are on their way back to Canada.

Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement the decision to suspend operations is temporary and the embassy will reopen if the security situation allows staff to be safe.

Some 40,000 Canadian troops were deployed in Afghanistan over 13 years as part of the NATO mission before pulling out in 2014. More than 150 Canadian soldiers died during the Afghanistan mission.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. is evacuating remaining staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban enter the Afghan capital. But he is playing down America’s hasty exit, saying “this is manifestly not Saigon.”

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Blinken said: “The compound itself, our folks are leaving there, and moving to the airport.”

Blinken also confirmed that U.S. Embassy workers were destroying documents and other items ahead of fleeing the embassy, but insisted “this is being done in a very deliberate way, it’s being done in an orderly way, and it’s being done with American forces there to make sure we can do it in a safe way.”

The evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had U.S. military helicopters lifting off from embassy grounds Sunday, and sent puffs of black smoke up into the skies over Kabul as U.S. officials worked to keep sensitive material from falling in Taliban hands.

The scene comes after President Joe Biden earlier this year played down any idea that the Taliban could capture the country, or that the Afghanistan war would end up in scenes reminiscent of the Vietnam one, with military helicopters taking off from embassy rooftops.

Blinken defended Biden’s decision to end the nearly 20-year U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, saying Biden’s hands were tied by a withdrawal deal President Donald Trump struck with the Taliban in 2020.

If Biden had called off the withdrawal, “we would have been back at the war with the Taliban,” and forced to surge tens of thousands of American forces back into Afghanistan, Blinken said.

__ Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City.

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ISLAMABAD — A special flight of Pakistan’s national airline PIA has arrived in Islamabad carrying 329 passengers from Kabul, and another carrying 170 people will arrive later today. A spokesman for the airline said Saturday that the airline will operate three flights tomorrow to transport Pakistanis and other nationalities looking to leave Kabul.

PIA and other commercial flights from Kabul were heavily delayed Sunday due to a U.S. military transport plane that blocked the runway, the airline said.

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will brief House members on the situation in Afghanistan in an unclassified virtual conference on Sunday morning, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested the meeting along with an in-person classified briefing when the House is back in Washington the week of Aug. 23.

— Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington

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BERLIN — NATO says that it is “helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world.”

In a statement it says that it would also maintain its diplomatic presence in Kabul. “The security of our personnel is paramount, and we continue to adjust as necessary,” it added.

NATO provided no details on its number of staff still in Afghanistan, but said it was “constantly assessing developments” in the country.

“We support Afghan efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, which is now more urgent than ever,” the statement said.

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s president says his country will work for stability in Afghanistan along with Pakistan, in order to stem a growing migration wave amid the Taliban’s countrywide offensive.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Afghans were increasingly attempting to migrate to Turkey via Iran, urging an international effort to bring stability to the country and prevent mass migration.

Erdogan was speaking at a naval ceremony with Pakistan’s president. He said Pakistan had a “vital task” to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, where clashes have intensified. Turkish-Pakistani cooperation would be needed for this, and Turkey would use all possibilities to do so, Erdogan added.

Erdogan did not mention any changes to a proposal for Turkey to secure and operate the airport in Kabul.

MADRID — Spain’s defense ministry says it has not yet begun evacuating Spanish nationals and Afghan staff including translators who are expected to be flown out alongside its citizens, but was speeding up its plans.

In an emailed statement it says that “the evacuation plan for Afghanistan is being accelerated to the maximum,” adding that “details are finalized on logistics and the people who will be evacuated,” but they cannot give more details for security reasons.

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. official says American diplomats in Afghanistan are being moved from the embassy in Kabul to the airport as the Taliban enter the capital.

The official says military helicopters are shuttling between the embassy compound and the airport, where a core presence will remain for as long as possible given security conditions.

The official was not authorized to discuss diplomatic movements and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Relocating a core group of embassy staff to the airport had been a contingency plan as the Taliban made dramatic territorial gains over the past several weeks before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops by Aug 31.

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