KABUL (UPDATE) - The Taliban said on Tuesday they wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law, as they held their first official news briefing since their lightning seizure of Kabul.
The Taliban announcements, short on details but suggesting a softer line than during their rule 20 years ago, came as the United States and Western allies resumed evacuating diplomats and civilians the day after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport as Afghans thronged the runway.
As the group consolidated power, the Taliban said one of its leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 10 years. Baradar was arrested in 2010, but released from prison in 2018 at the request of former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration so he could participate in peace talks.
"We don't want any internal or external enemies," the movement's main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said.
Women would be allowed to work and study and "will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam," he added.
As they rushed to evacuate, foreign powers assessed how to respond to the transformed situation on the ground after Afghan forces melted away in just days, with what many had predicted as the likely fast unraveling of women's rights.
U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they had agreed to hold a virtual meeting of Group of Seven leaders next week to discuss a common strategy and approach to Afghanistan.
During their 1996-2001 rule, also guided by Islamic sharia law, the Taliban stopped women from working. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out and then only when accompanied by a male relative.
The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a special session in Geneva next week to address "serious human rights concerns" after the Taliban takeover, a U.N. statement said.
Ramiz Alakbarov, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview the Taliban had assured the United Nations it can pursue humanitarian work in Afghanistan, which is suffering from a drought.
'WALK THE TALK'
The European Union said it would only cooperate with the Afghan government following the Taliban's return to power if they respected fundamental rights, including those of women.
Within Afghanistan, women expressed skepticism.
Afghan girls' education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, was wary of Taliban promises. "They have to walk the talk. Right now they are not doing that," she told Reuters.
Several women were ordered to leave their jobs during the Taliban's rapid advance across Afghanistan.
Mujahid said the Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and government officials, and were granting an amnesty for former soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.
"Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors," he said, adding that there was a "huge difference" between the Taliban now and 20 years ago.
He also said families trying to flee the country at the airport should return home and nothing would happen to them.
RESISTANCE AND CRITICISM
Mujahid's conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the "legitimate caretaker president" and vowed not to bow to Kabul's new rulers.
It was not immediately clear how much support Saleh enjoys in a country wearied by decades of conflict.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Taliban should allow the departure of all those who want to leave Afghanistan, adding that NATO's aim was to help build a viable state and warning that the alliance could strike if the country again becomes a breeding ground for terrorism.
The decision by Biden, a Democrat, to stick to the withdrawal deal struck last year by his Republican predecessor Trump has stirred widespread criticism at home and among U.S. allies.
Biden's approval rating dropped by 7 percentage points to 46%, the lowest level of his seven-month-long presidency, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Monday. It also found that less than half of Americans liked how he has handled Afghanistan.
U.S. forces took charge of the airport - the only way to fly out of Afghanistan - on Sunday as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight.
U.S. General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, was at Kabul's airport on Tuesday to evaluate security.
The State Department said Washington had completed a drawdown of embassy personnel from Kabul and remaining diplomats were assisting in the evacuation.
U.S. military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians restarted after having been suspended on Monday due to chaos at Kabul airport.
Asked how Washington would hold the Taliban to their pledge to respect women's rights, Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, signaled that options included sanctions and marshaling international condemnation and isolation.
Washington was blocking the Taliban from accessing any Afghan government funds held in the United States, including about $1.3 billion of gold reserves at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a Biden administration official said.
Biden said he had had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on Trump's withdrawal deal. He blamed the Taliban takeover on Afghan leaders who fled and the army's unwillingness to fight.
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