PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Images of the Taliban cracking down on a protest and bloodied women and children beaten by fighters are contradicting the more moderate image the militant group has been trying to project as it tries to consolidate power in Afghanistan.
Less than 24 hours after the Taliban spokesperson delivered security guarantees at a news conference in Kabul, the militants on Wednesday tried to stop residents from installing Afghanistan's national black, red and green flag in the eastern city of Jalalabad, said Anwar Khan, a resident.
A former police official told Reuters that four people were killed in the protest and that 13 others were injured. Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency shared video of what it said was the incident, showing crowds running as gunfire was heard. NBC News was not able to verify the video.
Meanwhile, the Taliban's assurance of a "safe passage" to the Kabul airport, where thousands have thronged in a desperate bid to be taken out of the country, has also been undermined by a report and photographs by a Los Angeles Times journalist.
In one of the graphic images, a woman and a child are seen with blood on their faces, apparently unconscious.
Hundreds of people were outside the airport Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. It said the Taliban demanded to see documents before they allowed the rare passenger inside. The Taliban fired occasional warning shots to disperse them, the agency said.
Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that the militants were checking documents and forcibly turning some people around at checkpoints, refusing to let them reach the airport. NBC News was not able to independently verify the reports.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday that officials have received reports of people being turned away, pushed back or even beaten as they try to get access to the airport.
"We are taking that up in a channel with the Taliban to try to resolve those issues," Sullivan said. "And we are concerned about whether that will continue to unfold in the coming days."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy has been operating out of the airport, coordinating further evacuations. As many as 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan, Biden administration officials told Senate staffers Tuesday.
Other countries are also scrambling to get their citizens out of the country. Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag said Tuesday that evacuation efforts were unsuccessful because the chaos outside the airport made it impossible to get eligible people on a plane, Reuters reported.
Separately, unverified photos circulating on social media Wednesday showed the statue of a Shiite militia leader who was killed by the Taliban in 1996 being blown up in central Bamiyan province, where the Taliban infamously blew up two ancient statues of Buddha carved into a mountain in 2001.
NBC News has not independently verified when the incident purportedly happened or that the Taliban destroyed the statue.
The reports contrast with a new, more modern image that the Taliban tried to paint in their first news conference since their takeover of Kabul on Tuesday night. Their officials deny that their fighters have been involved in the violence, blaming the injuries on men impersonating the Taliban.
Promising to welcome free press, not to infringe on women's rights and not to hold any "grudges" against past enemies, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that the group wanted peaceful relations with other countries.
"When it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us in comparison to 20 years ago," Mujahid said, striking a conciliatory tone.
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The Taliban said one of their leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 10 years. A Taliban official said leaders would show themselves to the world, unlike in the past, when they lived in secret.
The Taliban will have a hard time convincing many Afghans that they have changed 20 years since the U.S. toppled the regime after it sheltered Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which triggered the U.S. invasion and America's longest war.
With the Taliban's return to power comes the huge task of controlling and running daily life in the capital.
A Taliban commander has acknowledged that their takeover of the country happened very quickly — "beyond their imagination" — leaving them at a loss about how to govern.
"We were mentally not prepared for capturing such a big city of over 6 million people, as it has a lot of issues to deal with," a Taliban commander in Kabul said.
Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.