Taliban militants gather around the main square in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Friday after seizing control of the city, which is Afghanistan's second-largest. Photo by EPA-EFE
Aug. 13 (UPI) -- A lightning offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan seized control of three major cities on Friday -- including Kandahar, the nation's second-largest, authorities said.
In addition to Kandahar, militant fighters also took control Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and Herat, the nation's third-largest city.
Rebels also seized Feroz Koh, the provincial capital of Ghor, giving the Taliban greater momentum toward tackling Kabul two weeks before the official end date of the U.S. military withdrawal.
Taliban officials said the group seized "hundreds of weapons, vehicles and ammunition" and took over government offices, police headquarters, prisons and other operational centers in Kandahar.
"Many [government] soldiers surrendered and the rest fled," Afghan Parliament member Gul Ahmad Kamin told CNN.
Kamin said he reached a military base near Kandahar and was waiting for a flight out of the city.
Herat fell after insurgents took control of the key government facilities. Herat's police chief, Gov. Mohammad Ismail Khan, the deputy security minister and other military commanders surrendered to the Taliban, Tolo News reported.
The sweeping takedowns on Friday follow other areas of Afghanistan that have fallen to the militant group in quick succession over the past week. The Taliban have captured about a dozen provincial capitals, and U.S. officials said the fall of Kabul may be inevitable.
On Thursday, the Pentagon vowed to send 3,000 U.S. troops to Kabul to help evacuate workers at the American Embassy, and the British government sent hundreds to support its diplomatic staff.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also warned all Americans in Afghanistan to leave immediately.
The United States' top Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been in talks with the Taliban, seeking an assurance that the group will not attack the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, The New York Times reported.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States will continue a "core diplomatic presence" in Kabul, but noted that some of the 1,400 embassy staff will immediately leave Afghanistan.
The Pentagon said it is moving 3,000 Marines and soldiers to Afghanistan and another 4,000 troops to the region to evacuate most of the U.S.embassy and American citizens in Kabul. The first troops arrived Friday.
The Netherlands and Denmark also announced that they will close their embassies.
Officials say they hope to keep the Dutch Embassy in Kabul open as long as possible, but are making plans to evacuate if necessary.
"We always pay close attention to the safety of the embassy staff, we are also responsible for that to a great extent," Netherlands defense minister Ank Bijleveld said, according to NL Times.
Last week, Denmark started encouraging citizens to leave Afghanistan due to the deteriorating security situation.
Britain said it would deploy 600 military personnel to help evacuations. The government said its embassy staff had been reduced to a core team providing assistance.
The Taliban, which have largely been on the run in Afghanistan since U.S. forces arrived in late 2001, has moved recently to recapture territory and influence in the war-torn country after American troops began to leave.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said the withdrawal will be complete by Aug. 31, although the Pentagon has said recently that the pullout is more than 90% complete.
Some experts and officials have said Kabul could fall to the Taliban in a matter of weeks, and others fear a collapse of the Afghan government might lead to a resurgence for al-Qaida, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States formerly headed by Osama bin Laden.