Afghanistan's large, heavily defended city and the country's northern gateway to Central Asia, Mazar-i-Sharif was captured by the Taliban late Saturday, multiple sources confirmed.
Local officials told Anadolu Agency (AA) that at least seven provincial capitals, Mazar-i-Sharif of Balkh, Maymana of Faryab, Sharana of Paktika, Asadabad of Kunar, Mihtarlam of Laghman, Nili of Daykundi and Gardez of Paktia crumbled on Saturday.
Fall of Mazar-i-Sharif stands out in terms of its strategic importance in the heart of northern provinces, regional headquarters of the army and main bastion of key politicians such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor and Muhammad Muhaqiq.
Abbas Ibrahim, a lawmaker from the Balkh province, told AA that the Taliban captured all government offices, including the governor's office.
According to the local Salam Afghanistan radio, after a failed bid to guard the city, Noor, Rashid Dostum and others escaped to Uzbekistan.
Earlier in the day, the Taliban marched on Maidan city, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the country's heavily guarded capital Kabul.
Blitzing through much of the restive south and almost all of the northern provinces, the Taliban have now begun to tighten control around the capital city by capturing eastern Mihtarlam and southern Pul-e-Alam cities.
"The 'Mujahideen' (Taliban) took complete control of Sharana, the capital of Paktika province. The governor's office, police headquarters, intelligence (headquarters) and all places were 'conquered,'" Zabihullah Mujahid, the group spokesperson, said.
Visuals shared by the pro-Taliban account showed hundreds of the group's armed fighters in command of the main highway in Maidan Wardak province connecting Kabul with the rest of the country's southern and western provinces.
Meanwhile, the country's Defense Ministry claimed to have pushed back a major assault on the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. In air and ground offensives, the ministry said 265 insurgents were killed in the past 24 hours.
Making rapid gains over the past few days, the Taliban have now taken control of 24 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals.
The other cities overrun by the Taliban included Qalat, Tarinkot, Pul-e-Alam, Kandahar, Lashkargah, Herat, Feroz Koh, Qala-e-Nau, Ghazni, Fayzabad, Aybak, Zaranj, Sheberghan, Kunduz, Pul-e-Khumri, Taluqan, and Sar-e-Pul.
Meanwhile, in a short televised speech, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani on Saturday vowed to continue defending his government. "The country is in serious danger of instability," said the president.
U.S. President Joe Biden later on Saturday increased the number of American troops being sent to Afghanistan to help evacuate embassy personnel and Afghan civilians, and warned the Taliban, who were headed for Kabul, not to hinder the mission.
After consultations with his national security team, Biden said a total of "approximately 5,000" U.S. soldiers -- up from 3,000 --- will now be deployed to organize evacuations and the end of the U.S. mission after 20 years on the ground.
Biden again defended his decision to withdraw the US military from Afghanistan, saying: "I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan -- two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth."
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