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Taliban co-founder back in Afghanistan, group says all ‘pardoned’

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The Taliban's co-founder returned to Afghanistan Tuesday following the group's stunning takeover of the country, as a top spokesman insisted the insurgents will not seek "revenge" and declared a general amnesty.

Earlier in the day, the insurgents told government staff to return to work -- though residents reacted cautiously and few women took to the streets.

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Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar's arrival from Qatar -- where he has spent months leading talks with the United States and the Afghan peace negotiators -- crowns an astonishing comeback for the Taliban after being ousted 20 years ago.

Tens of thousands of people have tried to flee the country to escape the hardline Islamist rule expected under the Taliban, or fearing direct retribution for siding with the US-backed government that ruled for the past two decades.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 29, 2020 Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C) leaves after signing an agreement with the United States during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha. - The Taliban's deputy leader and co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kandahar on August 17, 2021, landing in the insurgent group’s former capital just days after they took control of the country. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters the new government would be "positively different" from their 1996-2001 regime, infamous for deaths by stoning and barring women from working in contact with men.

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"If the question is based on ideology and beliefs, there is no difference... but if we calculate it based on experience, maturity, and insight, no doubt there are many differences," Mujahid told reporters.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 18, 2021, the leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar walks after the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha. - Abdul Ghani Baradar and cleric Mullah Omar founded the Taliban movement in the early 1990s amid the chaos and corruption of the civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)


"All those in the opposite side are pardoned from A to Z," he said. "We will not seek revenge."

Mujahid said a government would soon be formed but offered few details, only saying the Taliban would "connect with all sides".

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He also said they were "committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam", without offering specifics.

A spokesman for the group in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, told Britain's Sky News that women would not be required to wear the all-covering burqa, but did not say what attire would be acceptable.

After the press conference, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: "If the Taliban says they are going to respect the rights of their citizens, we will be looking for them to uphold that statement and make good on that statement."

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- Triumphant return -
Baradar, now deputy leader of the Taliban, chose to touch down in Afghanistan's second-biggest city Kandahar -- the Taliban's spiritual birthplace and capital during their first time in power.

Before he landed, evacuation flights from Kabul's airport had resumed -- following a day of chaos at the facility, with huge crowds mobbing the tarmac.

Some people were so desperate to leave that they clung to the fuselage of a US military plane as it rolled down the runway for take-off.

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The United States has authorised the deployment of 6,000 troops to ensure the safe evacuation of embassy staff, as well as Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other support roles.

A Pentagon official said Tuesday in Washington that around 4,000 of them would be in place by day's end.

At the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Taliban had pledged to allow "safe passage of civilians to the airport", adding: "We intend to hold them to that commitment."

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Other governments, including France, Germany and Australia, have also organised charter flights.

But Washington has come under sharp criticism for its handling of the evacuations.

"The images of desperation at Kabul airport are shameful for the political West," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

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- 'The fear is there' -
The Taliban took effective control of the country Sunday when president Ashraf Ghani fled and the insurgents walked into Kabul with no opposition.

It capped a staggeringly fast rout of Afghanistan's major cities in just 10 days, achieved with relatively little bloodshed, following two decades of war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

The collapse came as US President Joe Biden moved to complete the withdrawal of American troops, under the false belief that the US-trained Afghan army was strong enough to withstand the Taliban.

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Biden admitted Monday the Taliban advance had unfolded more quickly than expected, but stood behind his decision to leave, and criticised Ghani's government.

US-led forces invaded the country following the September 11 attacks in 2001, in response to the Taliban giving sanctuary to Al-Qaeda, and toppled them.

This time around, the Taliban have sought to project an air of restraint and moderation.

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"Those working in any part or department of the government should resume their duties with full satisfaction and continue their duties without any fear," they said Tuesday in a statement.

A Taliban official gave an interview to a female journalist on an Afghan news channel, and a girls' school reopened in the western city of Herat.

In Kabul, some shops reopened but schools and universities remained closed, few women were seen outside and men had shed their Western clothes for traditional garb.

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"The fear is there," said a shopkeeper who asked not to be named after reopening his store.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague said it had received reports of crimes in Afghanistan that could amount of violations of international law, including extrajudicial revenge killings, and persecution of woman and girls.

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- Russia hails 'positive' meeting -
Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov met with the Taliban in Kabul, hailing a "positive and constructive" meeting.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would "have to talk" to the Taliban.

But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa would not recognise a Taliban government.

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