The Taliban, who have pledged a different sort of rule in Afghanistan from their brutal regime two decades ago, met with former president Hamid Karzai and senior official Abdullah Abdullah Wednesday as they seek to form a government.
The talks came as president Ashraf Ghani -- who fled Afghanistan as the insurgents closed in on Kabul at the weekend, sealing their return to power -- said from the United Arab Emirates that he supported those negotiations and was in talks to return home.
The Taliban won a lightning victory in a matter of days, taking control of the war-wracked country nearly two decades after being ousted by a US-led invasion in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The group has pledged not to seek revenge against opponents and to respect women's rights, but there are huge global concerns about their past brutal human rights record, and about tens of thousands of Afghans still trying to flee.
As the Taliban moves to put a government in place, leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has ordered the release of "political detainees", telling provincial governors to free them "without any restrictions or conditions", the group said.
Taliban negotiator Anas Haqqani met with Karzai, the first Western-backed leader of Afghanistan after the Taliban's ouster in 2001, and Abdullah, who had led the government's peace council, the SITE monitoring group said.
Taliban leaders "have said that they pardoned all former government officials and thus there is no need for anyone to leave the country," SITE said, after the Taliban published images of Haqqani meeting Karzai in Kabul.
Ghani -- who was in the United Arab Emirates, which said it was hosting him and his family "on humanitarian grounds" -- said he wanted those negotiations to be a "success".
- Protests and gunfire -
On Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared a blanket amnesty in the movement's first press conference and said: "We will not seek revenge."
He said the new regime would be "positively different" from their 1996-2001 stint, which was infamous for deaths by stoning, girls being banned from school and women from working in contact with men.
He also said they were "committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam", without offering specifics.
But while the Taliban leadership tried to project a new image, video footage shot by Pajhwok Afghan News, a local news agency, showed protesters in the eastern city of Jalalabad who were carrying the Afghan flag fleeing with the sound of gunshots in the background.
Local media said the residents were protesting the removal of the flags in favour of those of the hardline movement.
"While I was filming, a Taliban (militant) started hitting me with a gun from behind," said Babrak Amirzada, a journalist for the agency said.
And residents in Bamiyan city reported that a statue of Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the group in the 1990s, had been decapitated.
Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shiite faith and were massacred in the thousands during the Taliban's ruthless conquest of the country in the 1990s.
"We are not sure who has blown up the statue, but there are different groups of Taliban present here, including some... who are known for their brutality," a resident told AFP, asking not to be named.
The Taliban astonished the world in 2001 when it destroyed two monumental and ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, after deeming them un-Islamic.
- Desperation -
Afghans and foreigners continued to flee the country Wednesday, with the United States and other nations stepping up evacuation airlifts from Kabul.
Desperate scenes from the airport at the start of the week have created searing images of Afghans terrified of the Taliban, and a diminished United States unable to protect them.
Some footage showed hundreds of people running alongside a US Air Force plane as it rolled down the runway, with some clinging to the side of it. One person was later found dead in the wheel well of the plane.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said while some shots had been fired, it was believed that none of them had "anything to do with hostile intent" and were instead fired by US personnel as crowd control measures.
US, Turkish and Afghan troops are in full control of both the civilian and military sides of the facility, Kirby told reporters.
Crowds built up outside embassies in Kabul on rumours that governments were offering asylum.
In a dramatic culmination to the Taliban's takeover, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement's co-founder and deputy leader, returned to Afghanistan from Qatar late Tuesday.
He chose to touch down in the country's second biggest city Kandahar -- the Taliban's spiritual birthplace and capital during their first time in power.
- Human rights concerns -
The United Nations Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on Afghanistan next week to address the "serious human rights concerns" under the Taliban.
The European Union, the United States and 18 other countries issued a joint statement on Wednesday saying they were "deeply worried about Afghan women and girls", urging the Taliban to ensure their safety.
Demonstrations have been staged in cities around the world in support of Afghan civilians, and women and girls in particular.
US President Joe Biden's administration has so far given a non-committal response to the Taliban's pledges of tolerance, saying it is looking at actions, not promises.
Russia and China have meanwhile signalled their willingness to work with the Taliban.