The Latest: UN chief appeals to the Taliban to lay down arms

The Latest developments on Afghanistan, where a weeklong Taliban blitz has taken large swaths of territory just weeks ahead of the final pullout of all American and NATO troops from the war-torn country:

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UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations chief is urging the Taliban to immediately halt their offensive in Afghanistan and negotiate “in good faith” to avert a prolonged civil war.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his first appeal directly to the Islamic militant group, which now controls two-thirds of the country, that he is “deeply disturbed by early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women and journalists.”

“Afghanistan is spinning out of control,” he said. “It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away from them.”

“This is the moment to halt the offensive,” Guterres said. “This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war or the isolation of Afghanistan.”

He expressed hopes that discussions in Doha, Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban, supported by the region and international community, “will restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.”

Just weeks before the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades, the Taliban now hold half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals.

Guterres cited the “tremendous harm” from fighting between the insurgents and Afghan security forces in urban environments.

“At least 241,000 people have been forced to flee their homes,” he said. “Humanitarian needs are growing by the hour. Hospitals are overflowing. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Roads, bridges, schools, clinics and other critical infrastructure are being destroyed.”

Guterres called on all parties to do more to protect civilians, warning that continued urban conflict “will mean continued carnage — with civilians paying the highest price.”

“The message from the international community to those on the warpath must be clear: seizing power through military force is a losing proposition,” he said.

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MORE ON THE CRISIS IN AFGHANISTAN:

— Taliban sweep across Afghanistan’s south; take 4 more cities

— Bitter blow: UK’s former hub in Afghanistan taken by Taliban

— US rushes in troops to speed up evacuations in Afghanistan

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

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MADRID — Spain’s foreign ministry has announced that the country will evacuate Spanish nationals and the Afghan staffers who have worked “side-by-side” with its diplomatic and military presence in Afghanistan.

An emailed statement on Friday said because of “the advance of Taliban forces in their march towards Kabul,” Spain would begin “the repatriation of the embassy staff, the Spaniards remaining in the country, and those Afghans and their families who have worked side by side with us.”

Spanish media cited figures ranging from 50 to 100 Afghan staff and translators who could be given safe passage to Spain with their families.

The Taliban have swept over much of Afghanistan in the past few days, and have captured half of the country’s 34 provincial capitals. They control more than two-thirds of the country and are closing in on the Afghan capital, Kabul. The Western-backed government in Kabul still holds a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s interior minister has announced that authorities are relaxing visa requirements for journalists working for foreign outlets in neighboring Afghanistan amid the deteriorating security situation there in the wake of the Taliban offensive.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed made the announcement on Twitter on Friday.

He says all journalists and media staffers who are working for international outlets and other foreign media in Afghanistan and who want to leave through Pakistan can apply for Pakistani visas.

Ahmed said his ministry will issue visas on a priority basis, without offering details. He said the decision was made by Pakistan’s government, primarily keeping in mind the safety of the journalists.

Ahmed did not elaborate but under the previous policy, a visa to enter Pakistan required a lengthy intelligence check of a reporter’s background.

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PARIS — The French presidency said France will continue providing visas in Kabul and is now making an “exceptional effort” to facilitate access to French territory to Afghan civilians who are being threatened by the Taliban offensive.

Friday’s statement mentioned “artists, journalists, human right activists who risk their lives because of their commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and human rights.”

The French presidency also stressed that France this year set up a special procedure to welcome on its ground some of the Afghan employees who worked for French facilities in Afghanistan and were possibly under threat. Between May and July this year, 625 people and their families used that procedure involving housing and health care, it said.

The lightning Taliban push has seized half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals over the past days. The Taliban now control more than two-thirds of the country and are closing in on the capital, Kabul, and the surrounding provinces where the Western-backed government is still in control.

The offensive is underway just weeks before the U.S. is set to officially end its two-decade war and all American and NATO troops are to have left the country by the end of the month.

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s national security adviser is urging Afghan leaders to try to quickly reach a politically negotiated settlement with the Taliban to avoid further violence in Afghanistan.

The adviser, Moeed Yusuf, made the appeal while speaking to reporters in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on Friday. He stressed that the fall of city after city in neighboring Afghanistan underscores the need to expedite the peace process.

Pakistan has held considerable influence over the Taliban and has in the past succeeded in pressuring them to the negotiating table. Kabul has criticized Islamabad for offering shelter to Taliban leaders and has claimed the neighboring country also provides a haven for Taliban fighters.

“Trust me, if they sit down, they will be able to come out with some sort of settlement and we will respect whatever Afghans decide,” Yusuf said.

He added: “History will judge us very badly and poorly if we don’t put all efforts behind (this) for a political settlement” on the Afghan crisis.

Yusuf also defended Pakistan, saying it has done its best to facilitate the Afghan peace process in the past.

At the stage, “we can give only one message: Pakistan cannot be a guarantor for peace, we can only facilitate. We will facilitate whatever we can,” he said.

“Everybody needs to respect what Afghans decide politically,” Yusuf said.

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BRUSSELS — The NATO chief says the military alliance is troubled by the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan and is warning the insurgents that they won’t be considered legitimate by the West if they seize the country by force.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after chairing talks on Friday with NATO ambassadors that the “allies are deeply concerned about the high levels of violence caused by the Taliban’s offensive, including attacks on civilians, targeted killings, and reports of other serious human rights abuses.”

He says “the Taliban need to understand that they will not be recognized by the international community if they take the country by force,” and that NATO is “committed to supporting a political solution to the conflict.”

The Taliban have been emboldened by the Biden administration’s decision earlier this year to withdraw U.S. troops and to wind up the NATO training mission in Afghanistan. Most NATO troops have already left, with the remainder due to pull out by Aug. 31.

Stoltenberg says NATO’s aim “remains to support the Afghan government and security forces as much as possible.” This will almost exclusively happen from outside the country.

Several nations, including the United States, are starting to reduce and evacuate embassy staff from the Afghan capital. Stoltenberg says the 30-nation alliance intends to “maintain our diplomatic presence in Kabul, and continue to adjust as necessary.”

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MADRID — Spain’s defense ministry said Friday it would evacuate Afghan translators who have worked with Spanish forces in Afghanistan “as soon as possible.”

The ministry said in an emailed statement that it had identified translators who felt threatened by remaining in the country and was working with the Interior and Foreign Ministries to bring them to Spain in the coming days.

Spanish media reported that around 50 translators were expected to leave Afghanistan along with their families.

Also Friday, Italy’s foreign ministry said it was keeping in close contact with the U.S. State Department “in the light of the advance by the Taliban.”

It said that the ministry’s secretary general, Ettore Sequi, spoke on Thursday with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, “with whom he agreed on further reinforcement of the coordination between the embassies of both countries as well as on a bilateral level.”

Sequi, who is a former ambassador to Afghanistan, also discussed initiatives, both present and “which can be undertaken in consideration of the deterioration of the security context on the terrain,’’ the ministry said.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark’s foreign minister on Friday urged Danes in Afghanistan to leave the country, calling the fast-evolving crisis “a very serious situation” as Taliban take even more territory across the war-torn country.

Jeppe Kofod confirmed that the Danish Embassy in Kabul was closing but that “for security reasons, we cannot say exactly when the embassy will close.”

On Wednesday, Danish lawmakers agreed to evacuate 45 Afghan citizens who worked for Denmark’s government in Afghanistan and to offer them residency in the European country for two years. Denmark opened its embassy in Kabul in 2006.

In Oslo, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide said the Norwegian Embassy in Kabul also was closing. She said it was temporary and that “the safety of our employees is our highest priority.”

The Norwegian government has said it will not bring home former employees out of the war-torn country. Soereide said the evacuation includes embassy employees — both Norwegians and locals “with immediate family.”

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BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister says that his country is reducing its embassy staff in Kabul to “the operationally necessary, absolute minimum” due to the tense security situation in Afghanistan.

Heiko Maas told reporters on Friday that a “crisis support team” is immediately being sent to the Afghan capital to increase security at the embassy. He called on all German citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately, adding that planned charter flights would be brought forward to fly diplomats and local staff working for the embassy out of the country.

Maas said visas for Afghan will also be issued in Germany in future to speed up the process of getting people out of the country.

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BRUSSELS — NATO envoys were meeting Friday in Brussels to discuss developments in Afghanistan amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the wake of the relentless Taliban offensive there.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and 30 national ambassadors were taking part in the meeting in Brussels, according to a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations.

“Allies are constantly consulting on the situation on Afghanistan,” the official said, adding that Stoltenberg was “in regular contact with allies and the Afghan authorities.”

“NATO is monitoring the security situation very closely. We continue to coordinate with the Afghan authorities and the rest of the international community,” the official said.

NATO took charge of international security operations in Afghanistan in 2003 – its first major mission outside Europe and North America – aiming to help stabilize the government, build up local security forces and remove a potential rear-base for militant groups.

The U.S.-led military alliance wound down combat operations in 2014 to focus on training Afghan security forces. The Afghan armed forces, with some 300,000 personnel, outnumber the Taliban by roughly four to one but have been unable to halt the insurgent offensive.

The Taliban have been emboldened by the Biden administration’s decision earlier this year to withdraw U.S. troops and to wind up the NATO training mission in Afghanistan. Most NATO troops have already left, with the remainder due to pull out by Aug. 31.

The NATO official said that the organization continues to have a “diplomatic presence in Kabul. As the security of our personnel is paramount, we will not go into any operational details.”

—Lorne Cook in Brussels

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