The leader of the Afghan opposition group resisting Taliban forces in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul has said he welcomed proposals from religious scholars for a negotiated settlement to end the fighting.
Ahmad Massoud, head of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), made the announcement on the group’s Facebook page on Sunday. Earlier, Taliban forces said they had fought their way into the provincial capital of Panjshir after securing the surrounding districts.
The Taliban took control of the rest of Afghanistan three weeks ago, taking power in Kabul on August 15 after the Western-backed government collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
“The NRF in principle agree to solve the current problems and put an immediate end to the fighting and continue negotiations,” Massoud said in the Facebook post.
“To reach a lasting peace, the NRF is ready to stop fighting on condition that Taliban also stop their attacks and military movements on Panjshir and Andarab,” he said, referring to a district in the neighbouring province of Baghlan.
A large gathering of all sides with the Ulema council of religious scholars could then be held, he said.
Earlier, Afghan media outlets reported that religious scholars had called on the Taliban to accept a negotiated settlement to end the fighting in Panjshir.
There was no immediate response from the Taliban.
NRF spokesman Fahim Dashti said on Sunday that “heavy clashes” were under way in Panjshir Valley.
According to the NRF, it surrounded “thousands of terrorists” in Khawak Pass and the Taliban abandoned vehicles and equipment in the Dashte Rewak area.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from the capital, Kabul, said sources on the ground said hundreds of Taliban fighters had been taken prisoner on Sunday.
“Sources within the valley are saying the NRF are claiming to have captured about 1,500 Taliban. Apparently, these fighters were surrounded,” said Stratford.
“There are growing fears about the estimated 150,000 – 200,000 people inside the valley. All communication has been cut off. We also know that the Taliban have cut the electricity as well, so it is very difficult to get independent verification of exactly what is going on.”
However, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said that their forces had fought their way into the provincial capital, Bazarak, and had captured large quantities of weapons and ammunition.
Karimi said on Twitter opposition forces had suffered numerous casualties.
Massoud, who leads a force made up of remnants of regular Afghan army and special forces units as well as local militia fighters, called for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban before the fighting broke out about a week ago.
Several attempts at talks were held but they eventually broke down, with each side blaming the other for their failure.
Panjshir, a rugged valley in the mountains north of Kabul that is still littered with the wreckage of Soviet tanks destroyed during the long war in the 1980s to remove the Soviet presence, has proved very difficult to overcome in the past.
Under Massoud’s late father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the region long resisted control by both the invading Soviet army and by the Taliban government that previously ruled from 1996 to 2001.
But that effort was helped by supply routes leading north to the border, which were closed off by the Taliban’s sweeping victory last month.
The Panjshir fighting has been the most prominent example of resistance to the Taliban. But small individual protests for women’s rights or in defence of the green, red and black tricolour flag of Afghanistan have also been held in different cities.
Meanwhile, at least four planes chartered to evacuate several hundred people seeking to escape the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan have been unable to leave the country for days, officials said on Sunday, with conflicting accounts emerging about why they were unable to take off as pressure ramps up on the United States to help those left behind to flee.
An Afghan official at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif said that the would-be passengers were Afghans, many of whom did not have passports or visas, and thus were unable to leave the country. He said they had left the airport while the situation was sorted out.
The top Republican on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, said that the group included Americans and they were sitting on the planes, but the Taliban were not letting them take off, effectively “holding them hostage”. Michael McCaul did not say where that information came from. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the accounts.