The Taliban have pledged not to seek "revenge" against their opponents in Afghanistan in their first press conference since taking power, as the United States said they would hold the insurgents to their promises to respect human rights.
The Taliban announcements came Tuesday after the return to Afghanistan of their co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, crowning the group's astonishing comeback after being ousted in a US-led invasion nearly 20 years ago.
In the capital Kabul, some shops opened and the insurgents told government staff to return to work – though residents reacted cautiously and few women took to the streets.
Tens of thousands of people have tried to flee the country to escape the hardline Islamist rule expected under the Taliban, or fearing direct retribution for siding with the Western-backed government in power for the past two decades.
But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters the new regime would be "positively different" from their 1996-2001 stint at the helm, infamous for deaths by stoning and barring women from working in contact with men.
"If the question is based on ideology, and beliefs, there is no difference... but if we calculate it based on experience, maturity, and insight, no doubt there are many differences," Mujahid told reporters.
"All those in the opposite side are pardoned from A to Z," he said. "We will not seek revenge."
Mujahid said a government would soon be formed but offered few details, only saying the Taliban would "connect with all sides".
He also said they were "committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam," without offering specifics.
A spokesman for the group in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, told Britain's Sky News that women would not be required to wear the all-covering burqa, but did not say what attire would be acceptable.
After the press conference, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: "If the Taliban says they are going to respect the rights of their citizens, we will be looking for them to uphold that statement and make good on that statement."
Baradar, now deputy leader of the Taliban, chose to touch down in Afghanistan's second biggest city Kandahar – the Taliban's spiritual birthplace and capital during their first time in power. He arrived from Qatar, where he has spent months leading talks with the United States and then Afghan peace negotiators.
Before he landed, evacuation flights from Kabul's airport had resumed following a day of chaos at the facility, when huge crowds mobbed the tarmac.
Some people were so desperate to leave that they clung to the fuselage of a US military plane as it rolled down the runway for take-off. The US military said it was investigating deaths associated with that flight, including human remains found in a wheel well.
Washington has authorised the deployment of 6,000 troops to ensure the safe evacuation of embassy staff, as well as Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other support roles.
A Pentagon official said Tuesday that around 4,000 would soon be in place.
At the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Taliban had pledged to allow "safe passage of civilians to the airport," adding: "We intend to hold them to that commitment."
Other governments – including France, Germany, India and Australia – have also organised charter flights.
But Washington has come under sharp criticism for its handling of the evacuations.
"The images of desperation at Kabul airport are shameful for the political West," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Group of Seven would stage a summit next week on the crisis.
'The fear is there'
The Taliban took effective control of the country Sunday when president Ashraf Ghani fled and the insurgents walked into Kabul with no opposition.
It capped a staggeringly fast rout of Afghanistan's major cities in just 10 days, achieved with relatively little bloodshed, following two decades of war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The collapse came as Biden moved to complete the withdrawal of US troops. He admitted Monday the Taliban advance had unfolded more quickly than expected but defended his decision to leave, and criticised Ghani's government.
US-led forces invaded the country following the September 11 attacks in 2001, in response to the Taliban giving sanctuary to Al-Qaeda, and toppled them.
This time around, the Taliban have sought to project an air of restraint and moderation.
"Those working in any part or department of the government should resume their duties with full satisfaction and continue their duties without any fear," they said Tuesday in a statement.
In Kabul, tensions remained high.
"The fear is there," said a shopkeeper who asked not to be named after reopening his store, though schools and universities remained closed.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague said it had received reports of crimes in Afghanistan that could amount of violations of international law, including extrajudicial revenge killings, and persecution of woman and girls.
Russia hails 'positive' meeting
Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov met with the Taliban in Kabul, hailing a "positive and constructive" meeting.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would "have to talk" to the Taliban.
But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa would not recognise a Taliban government.
by David Fox, AFP