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Taliban claim to take Panjshir, last holdout of resistance

Reports said six charter planes carrying NGO workers and others in the north of the country were being stopped from leaving.
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The Taliban said Monday that they had captured the last holdout of resistance in the country, but rebel forces contested the claim and vowed to continue fighting.

The Taliban asserted that they had seized Panjshir province, north of Kabul, as they stopped a number of charter planes carrying nongovernmental organization workers, among others, from taking off from an airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of the country.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a news conference that Panjshir had fallen — underlining the group's attempts to tighten their hold on Afghanistan after their blitz across the country last month.

"Panjshir is under the control of the Taliban," Mujahid said. "Now the war is ended."

Image: Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take part in military training in Panjshir province on Thursday.
Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take part in military training in Panjshir province Thursday.Ahmad Sahel Arman / AFP via Getty Images

Panjshir attracted resistance fighters from across Afghanistan after the Taliban conquered much of the country last month and the Washington-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani collapsed. Former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and the son of the iconic anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud are among the leaders of the resistance.

Mujahid said that some rebels had been killed and that some had fled, and he reassured the local community that there would be no retaliation. While the Taliban have repeatedly said they would not carry out revenge attacks against their former enemies, numerous reports of such retaliatory killings have emerged.

Rebels rejected the Taliban's statements.

"Taliban's claim of occupying Panjshir is false. The NRF forces are present in all strategic positions across the valley to continue the fight," said a tweet on the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan's account.

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NBC News could not independently verify the Taliban's claims or the resistance denials.

Meanwhile, as pressure ramped up on the U.S. to help those left behind after the U.S. exit to escape the country, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said planes carrying U.S. citizens and Afghan interpreters were being stopped from taking off at an airport in Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Taliban were holding the passengers "hostage," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

A White House official said the U.S. government was not aware of any hostage situation in Mazar-i-Sharif and did not confirm whether any Americans were at the airport.

A State Department spokesperson, meanwhile, said officials did not have "reliable means" to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including the number of U.S. citizens and members of other priority groups on board, because they do not have personnel on the ground.

Image: Six commercial airplanes are seen near the main terminal of the Mazar-i-Sharif airport
Six commercial airplanes near the main terminal of the Mazar-i-Sharif airport in Afghanistan on Friday.Maxar Technologies / Reuters

They added that they were holding the Taliban to their pledge to allow people to freely depart Afghanistan.

Marina LeGree, executive director of the U.S. nonprofit Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics, said she was trying to get dozens of at-risk Afghan staff members and girls, including two U.S. green card holders, out of the country on the flights.

LeGree said 19 U.S. citizens were among the wider group of hundreds of people trying to escape, including journalists, women at risk and workers for other nonprofit organizations.

"It's a total nightmare," LeGree, 42, said by phone from Naples, Italy. She said the Taliban were negotiating with Kam Air, a private Afghan carrier organizing the charters.

Kam Air did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the status of the charter planes, Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, said without elaborating Monday that they were not able to leave because the airport was not active.