Australian troops will land in Afghanistan this week on a hasty rescue mission as the Taliban marches on the capital city Kabul after seizing several key cities in its takeover of the country.
The ABC reports Australian military will attempt to evacuate hundreds of Afghani interpreters and contractors who served alongside ADF troops.
Australians working for Afghan and international charities and non-government organisations will also be offered evacuation, as well as journalists and some dual citizens, according to the ABC.
RAAF planes are expected to arrive in Kabul as early as this week to begin the evacuation, which will be coordinated with the arrival of US and British security forces.
The United States and Britain have rushed in troops to help evacuate their embassies after the militants captured town after town as US and other foreign forces that have backed the government withdrew.
Many Afghans have fled from the provinces to the capital, driven out by fighting and fearful of a return to hardline Islamist rule, as resistance from Afghan government forces crumbles.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has held urgent talks with local leaders and international partners as Taliban rebels push closer to Kabul.
“As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people,” Mr Ghani said in a brief televised address, adding that he was consulting government, elders, politicians and international leaders.
He gave no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign as a condition for any talks on a ceasefire and a political settlement, saying his priority remained the consolidation of the country’s security and defence forces.
Qatar, which has been hosting so-far inconclusive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, said it had urged the insurgents to cease fire.
Earlier the Taliban, facing little resistance, took Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province and 70 km south of Kabul, according to a local provincial council member.
Police officials however denied reports that the Taliban had advanced closer to Kabul from Pul-e-Alam, which is a staging post for a potential assault on the capital.
The town’s capture came a day after the insurgents took the country’s second- and third-biggest cities. The Taliban says it is close to capturing Maidan Shahr, another town close to Kabul.
Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the heartland of the Taliban is also under the militants’ control as US-led forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
The US-led invasion, which ousted the Taliban from power, was launched after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Herat in the west, near the border with Iran, also fell to the group. The Taliban said on Saturday it had overrun the capitals of Kunar, Paktika and Paktia provinces on Afghanistan’s eastern border, although this could not be immediately confirmed.
American troops have begun flying in to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy personnel and other civilians.
Two battalions of Marines and an infantry battalion will arrive in Kabul by Sunday evening, involving about 3,000 troops. An infantry brigade combat team will move to Kuwait to act as a quick reaction force for security in Kabul if needed.
The Czech Republic said it was evacuating its two diplomats on Saturday, and Germany said it would deploy troops to get its diplomats out as soon as possible.
Residents said many people in the capital were stocking up on rice, other food and first aid.
Hospitals were struggling to cope with the numbers of people wounded in the fighting, with 17,000 treated in July and the first week of August in facilities supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the aid agency said.
The explosion in fighting has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of gains in human rights, especially for women.
As well as Kabul, the government still holds the cities of Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, where there were reports on social media of heavy fighting on Saturday.
The speed of the Taliban’s gains has led to recriminations over the US withdrawal, which was negotiated last year under the administration of President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.