Reports of targeted Taliban killings fuel Afghans’ fears

Reports of targeted killings in areas overrun by the Taliban mounted Friday, fueling fears that they will return Afghanistan to the repressive rule they imposed when they were last in power, even as they urged imams to push a message of unity at Friday’s prayers.

Terrified that the new de facto rulers would commit such abuses and despairing for their country’s future, thousands have raced to Kabul’s airport and border crossings following the Taliban’s stunning blitz through Afghanistan. In one dramatic image, a U.S. Marine providing airport security reached over razor wire atop a barrier and plucked a baby by the arm from a crowd of people and pulled it up over the wall.

Others have taken to the streets to protest the takeover — acts of defiance that Taliban fighters have violently suppressed.

The Taliban say they have become more moderate since they last ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and have pledged to restore security and forgive those who fought them in the 20 years since a U.S.-led invasion. Ahead of Friday prayers, leaders urged imams to use sermons to appeal for unity and urge people not to flee the country.

But many Afghans are skeptical, fearing that the Taliban will erase the gains, especially for women, achieved in the past two decades. An Amnesty International report provided more evidence Friday that undercut the Taliban’s claims they have changed.

The rights group said that its researchers spoke to eyewitnesses in Ghazni province who recounted how the Taliban killed nine ethnic Hazara men in the village of Mundarakht from July 4 to July 6. It said six of the men were shot, and three were tortured to death. Hazaras are Shiite Muslims who were previously persecuted by the Taliban and who made major gains in education and social status in recent years.

The brutality of the killings was “a reminder of the Taliban’s past record and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring,” said Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International.

The group warned that many more killings may have gone unreported because the Taliban cut cellphone services in many areas they captured.

Separately, Reporters without Borders expressed alarm at the news that Taliban fighters killed a family member of an Afghan journalist working for Germany’s Deutsche Welle on Wednesday.

The broadcaster said fighters conducted house-to-house searches for their reporter, who had already relocated to Germany. It said the Taliban also raided the homes of at least three of its journalists.

Meanwhile, a Norway-based private intelligence group that provides information to the United Nations said it obtained evidence that the Taliban have rounded up Afghans on a blacklist of people they believe worked in key roles with the previous Afghan administration or with U.S.-led forces.

In an email, the executive director of the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses said the organization knew about several threat letters sent to Afghans, including a man who was taken from his Kabul apartment this week by the Taliban.

“We had access to hard copies of concrete letters issued and stamped by the Taliban Military Commission to this effect,” said Christian Nellemann. A report from the group that was obtained by The Associated Press included a copy of one of the letters.

The AP could not independently verify the claims made by the group.

Under the Taliban’s previous rule, women were largely confined to their homes, television and music were banned, and public executions were held regularly. But leaders of the movement have pledged more moderation this time.

It’s not clear whether the reports of abuses indicate that Taliban leaders are saying one thing but doing another or whether they simply do not have full control over their forces.

The scale and speed of their takeover seems to have challenged the leadership’s ability to control their fighters. In Kabul, for instance, there have been reports of fighters promising security to major news outlets, but also examples of them intimidating business owners.

Amid the uncertainty, thousands have tried to flee the country, braving checkpoints manned by Taliban fighters to rush to Kabul’s airport, where a chaotic evacuation is underway.

Mohammad Naim, who said he used to be an interpreter for U.S. forces, has been in the airport crowd for four days trying to escape. He said put his children on the roof of a car on the first day to save them from being crushed by the mass of people. He saw other children killed who were unable to get out of the way.

He urged others not to the come to airport.

“It is a very, very crazy situation right now,” he said.

A widely seen video shared on social media showed some of the chaos when a U.S. Marine at the airport pulled a baby out of the crowd. A spokesman from the Marine Corps, Maj. Jim Stenger, confirmed that the Marine was a member of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and said the baby was “cared for by medical professionals.”

No additional information was given about the baby or its family, and it was not clear when the incident happened.

The United States is struggling to pick up the pace of evacuations it is running from Afghanistan, where thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies may be in need of escape. European countries are also working to bring their citizens and those who have worked with them out.

But Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles said Friday that its military transport planes are leaving Kabul partly empty in the tumult.

“Nobody’s in control of the situation,” Robles told Spanish public radio RNE.

Getting to the facility is also a major challenge. Germany was sending two helicopters to Kabul to help bring small numbers of people from elsewhere in the city to the airport, officials said.

As concerns mount about what a Taliban government will look like, the group’s leaders are meeting with some officials from previous Afghan administrations.

An Afghan official familiar with those talks indicated nothing would come of them before the last U.S. troops leave, currently planned for Aug. 31.

The Taliban’s lead negotiator, Anas Haqqani, has said the group agreed with the U.S. to “do nothing” until after that date, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give information to the media.

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Akhgar reported from Istanbul, Rising from Bangkok. Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Rebecca Santana in New Orleans and Rod McGurk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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