Government flees Kabul as rebels move in

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The Independent Online
Government forces were pul-ling out of Afghanistan's stricken capital, Kabul, last night, crowning a remarkable series of military successes by an Islamic rebel movement founded only two years ago.

Troops joined thousands of refugees fleeing northwards from the city as their resistance broke. President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his principal military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had held out against more than four years of continuous bombardment and several ground assaults by other factions, but found themselves almost encircled by the speed of the Taliban militia's advance.

Last night, the rebels seized the airport and moved into Wazir Akbar Khan, the diplomatic quarter, where a news agency correspondent saw people hastily burning posters of Mr Rabbani and Mr Massoud. As darkness fell, government commanders were seen leaving the city, followed by at least six tanks and trucks crammed with soldiers. Checkpoints in the deserted streets were abandoned.

The International Committee of the Red Cross flew out all but essential staff and most remaining foreign diplomats and aid workers yesterday. "Basically, the city is cornered in all four sides and we don't know whether there will be a peaceful takeover like the other places or not," said Esther Robertson of the British group Care. "It is better to go now while we have a chance."

The final straw for Kabul's defenders appeared to be threatening moves by Taliban towards the Baghram air base, 18 miles to the north. Not only is it the crumbling government's only air link with the outside world, but it commands the entrance to the Panjshir valley, Mr Massoud's stronghold during the 13-year war against the Communist regime in Kabul.

When the Communists fell in 1992, Mr Massoud's forces were first into the capital. His and Mr Rabbani's refusal to yield other factions their share of the spoils provoked a civil war which has devastated much of Afghanistan; now the "Lion of Panjshir", as admiring Western journalists dubbed him, seems destined to return there.

Kabul's new rulers emerged from the religious schools of Pakistan in reaction to corruption and disunity among the mujahedin. Widely assumed - though this has always been denied - to have Pakistani support, they have imposed strict Islamic rule in the areas they control.