The Afghan 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 shock 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 evacuated diplomats and civilians the day after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport as Afghans thronged the airfield.
As they rush to evacuate, foreign powers are assessing how to respond to the changed 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.
During their 1996-2001 rule, also guided by Islamic law, or shariah, the Taliban stopped women from working and administered punishments including public stoning. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out.
"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.
In response, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York: "We will need to see what actually happens and I think we will need to see acts on the ground in terms of promises kept."
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.
"The EU calls on the Taliban to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law in all circumstances," Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said.
Several women were ordered from their jobs during the Taliban's rapid advance across Afghanistan. Some are fearful that, whatever the militants say, the reality may be different, but others are defiant.
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.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group would not seek retribution against former soldiers and members of the Western-backed government, and was granting an amnesty for former Afghan government 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 said private media could continue to be free and independent in Afghanistan and that the Taliban were committed to the media within their cultural framework.
He also said families trying to flee the country at the airport should return home and nothing would happen to them.
Mujahid's conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the "legitimate caretaker president" and vowed that he would not bow to Kabul's new rulers.
Despite his outspoken comments, 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 all those who wanted to leave the country to depart, adding that NATO's aim was to help build a viable state in Afghanistan.
The alliance also said the Taliban must not let Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism again, warning that it retained the military power to strike any terrorist group from a distance.
Under a U.S. troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.
The decision by U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to stick to the deal struck by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump has triggered widespread criticism at home and among U.S. allies.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said "the images of despair at Kabul airport shame the political West," referring to chaotic scenes on Monday when thousands of Afghans swarmed the runway at Kabul airport.
U.S. forces took charge of the airport - their 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. military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted on Tuesday, the day after they were suspended due to chaos at the airfield.
U.S. troops had fired warning shots to disperse crowds and people clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.
Around a dozen flights left on Tuesday though French Defence Minister Florence Parly said Taliban roadblocks at the airport was making access extremely difficult.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Taliban had told the United States it would provide safe passage for civilians to reach the airport.
When asked how the United States would hold the Taliban to their pledge to respect women's rights, Sullivan signaled that options included sanctions and marshaling international condemnation and isolation.
He said Washington would tell the Taliban directly "what the costs and disincentives are for certain types of action and what our expectations are."
Biden said he had had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on a withdrawal agreement negotiated by Trump.
He blamed the Taliban's takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army's unwillingness to fight.
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