President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government, which seized the city after the disintegration of the Communist regime in 1992, faced collapse. Fighting was reported on the eastern side of Kabul yesterday as the Taliban prepared to deliver the final blow in a series of lightning military successes.
Government jets based at Baghram, to the north of Kabul, screamed low over the city to bomb Taliban positions. The capital's 750,000 people, who have suffered almost continuous bombardment interspersed with street fighting in the past four years, retreated to their homes, leaving streets deserted.
The Taliban is an austere Islamic movement which has forced women to wear the veil, closed girls' schools, banned cinemas and gambling and staged public hangings and amputations in the areas under its control. It has denounced the corruption and brutality of the other Muslim factions which overthrew the Communists four years ago, but did not flinch at launching rocket and artillery attacks on civilians in Kabul when it seized the southern approaches to the city last year.
The government's main military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, managed to keep the Taliban forces at bay then, and yesterday his officers were vowing to repulse the latest attack. But Kabul's troops have been demoralised by the rebels' successes. Two weeks ago the movement captured Jalalabad, the main city in eastern Afghanistan, before seizing the strategic town of Sarobi. Exhausted government troops said yesterday that about 100 people were killed on both sides.
With the rebels attacking Kabul from three directions and fighting taking place within six miles of the presidential palace, United Nations staff reported chaotic scenes. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was preparing to send two planes to Kabul today to evacuate foreigners.
The Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, called on troops loyal to Mr Rabbani to stop fighting because their leader was "preparing to flee", and offered an amnesty to anyone who came over to their side.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied claims that it is behind the movement.