The Taliban’s assertion that they had seized Panjshir province north of Kabul came as they stopped a number of charter planes carrying NGO workers among others from taking off from an airport in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country.
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a press 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.”
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 some had fled, and reassured the local community there would be no retaliation. While the Taliban have repeatedly said they would not carry out revenge attacks against their former enemies, numerous reports have emerged of such retaliatory killings.
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,” according to a tweet on the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan’s account.
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NBC News couldn’t independently verify the Taliban’s claims of taking Panjshir or the resistance’s denials.
Meanwhile, as pressure ramped up on the U.S. to help those left behind after the Aug. 31 exit to escape the country, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas., said planes carrying American citizens and Afghan interpreters were being stopped from taking off from an airport in Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Taliban was holding the passengers “hostage,” he told “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 if any Americans were at the airport.
A State Department spokesperson, meanwhile, told NBC News they did not have “reliable means” to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including the number of U.S. citizens and other priority groups on board, because they don’t have personnel on the ground.
They added that they were holding the Taliban to their pledge to allow people to freely depart Afghanistan.
Marina LeGree, executive director of American not-for-profit Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics told NBC News she was trying to get dozens of at-risk Afghan staff and girls, including two U.S. green card holders, out of the country on the flights.
LeGree said there were 19 U.S. citizens among the wider group of hundreds of people trying to escape, including journalists, women at risk and other non-profits.
“It’s a total nightmare,” LeGree, 42, said speaking on the phone from Naples, Italy. She added that 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, Taliban spokesperson Mujahid said Monday they were not able to leave because the airport was not active, without elaborating.
Annie Hill , Laura Saravia and Monica Alba contributed.