Military forces say they are enduring “heavy attacks” as they fight the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, the latest attack on harsh Islamist control.
The Taliban face the enormous challenge of shifting gears from rebel group to government power, days after the United States completely withdrew its troops and ended two decades of war.
But they are still struggling to put out the last flame of resistance in the Panjshir Valley, which lasted for a decade against the occupation of the Soviet Union and also the Taliban’s first rule from 1996-2001.
Festive shots were fired over Kabul late Friday as rumors spread that the valley had fallen, but the Taliban made no official claim.
Fighters from the National Resistance Front – made up of anti-Taliban militias and former Afghan security forces – are believed to have significant weapons stockpiles in the valley, located about 80 km (50 miles) north of Kabul.
Former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, one of the leaders of the opposition forces, said his side had not given up.
“There is no doubt that we are in a difficult situation. We are under invasion by the Taliban, “he said in a video posted on Twitter by a BBC World journalist. “We have held the ground, we have resisted.”
Several other resistance leaders also rejected reports of the fall of Panjshir, where thousands of fighters from regional militias and remnants of the old government forces were gathered.
“News of Panjshir conquests is circulating in Pakistani media. This is a lie,” said Ahmad Massoud, who is leading the forces.
Pro-Taliban Twitter accounts sent video clips pretending to show that the new regime’s warriors had captured tanks and other heavy military equipment inside the valley.
Taliban and resistance tweets indicated that the key district of Paryan had been taken and lost again, but neither could it be independently confirmed.
While the West has adopted a wait-and-see approach to the group, there were some signs that engagement with the new leaders was gaining momentum.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to travel to Qatar on Sunday, a key hub for the Afghan evacuation and location of the Taliban’s political office, although he was not expected to meet with the militants.
He will then travel to Germany to chair a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
The UN has already restarted humanitarian flights to parts of the country, while the country’s flag carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines resumed domestic flights on Friday, and the United Arab Emirates sent a plane with “urgent medical and food aid”.
Western Union and Moneygram, meanwhile, said they were restarting money transfers that many Afghans depend on from relatives abroad to survive, and Qatar said it was working to reopen Kabul airport – a lifeline for aid.
China has confirmed it will keep its embassy in Kabul open.
“We hope the Taliban will establish an open and inclusive political structure, pursue a moderate and stable domestic and foreign policy and make a clean break with all terrorist groups,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
Even before the Taliban’s lightning offensive, Afghanistan was heavily dependent on aid – with 40% of the country’s GDP drawn from foreign funding.
The UN has warned 18 million people are facing a humanitarian catastrophe and another 18 million could quickly join them.
Qatar hopes to see the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors in Afghan airports within 48 hours, Doha’s envoy to Afghanistan told Al Jazeera on Friday.
The new rulers have promised to be more accommodating than during their first stay in power, which also came after many years of conflict – first the Soviet invasion in 1979 and then a bloody civil war.
That regime was notorious for its brutal interpretation of Islamic law and its treatment of women who were forced inside, deprived of access to school and work, and denied freedom of movement.
This time, the Taliban have made repeated statements that they will not retaliate against opponents and that women will have access to education and some employment, but there is growing evidence from across Afghanistan that the biggest changes may be in messages, rather than ideology.
They have promised a more “inclusive” government that represents Afghanistan’s complex ethnic composition – although women are unlikely to be included at the top levels.
Residents also expressed concern over the country’s long-standing economic difficulties, now severely exacerbated by the takeover of the hard-line movement.