KABUL, Taliban fighters tightened their control of captured territory in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday as residents hid in their homes and a pro-government commander vowed to fight to the death to defend Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city in the north.
President Ashraf Ghani called on regional strongmen to support his embattled government after a stunning string of Taliban gains and as the United States said it was up to Ghani's forces to defend themselves.
In the town of Aibak, capital of Samangan province on the main road between Mazar-i-Sharif and the national capital, Kabul, Taliban fighters were consolidating their grip, moving into government buildings, residents said.
Most members of the government security forces appeared to have withdrawn from the town, residents said, as they kept off the streets.
"The only way is self-imposed house arrest or to find a way to leave for Kabul," said Sher Mohamed Abbas, a provincial tax office, when asked about living conditions in the town.
"But then even Kabul is not a safe option anymore," said Abbas, a father of four children and a sole bread winner for a family of nine.
Abbas said Taliban had arrived at his office and told workers to go home. He and other residents said they had not seen nor heard fighting on Tuesday.
The Taliban, battling to defeat the U.S-backed government and reimpose strict Islamic law, swept into Aibak on Monday meeting little resistance.
Taliban and government officials have confirmed that the Islamists have overrun six provincial capitals in recent days in the north, west and south.
'DYING IN DIGNITY'
The militants, ousted in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, are in a position to advance from different directions on the biggest city in the region, Mazar-i-Sharif. Its fall would deal a devastating blow to Ghani's government in Kabul.
Atta Mohammad Noor, a northern militia commander, vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be "resistance until the last drop of my blood".
"I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair," he said on Twitter.
In Kabul, Ghani's aides said he was seeking help from regional militias he has squabbled with over the years to rally to the defence of his government. He also appealed to civilians to defend the country's "democratic fabric", aides said.
The United States will complete the withdrawal of its forces at the end of this month under a deal with the Taliban, which included the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used for international terrorism.
Under the deal, the Taliban were meant to seek peace with the Ghani's government but months of intermittent talks have been fruitless.
Government officials have appealed for pressure on neighbouring Pakistan to stop Taliban reinforcements and supplies flowing over the porous border. Pakistan denies backing the Taliban.
The United States has said it is up to Afghan security forces to defend their country.
"It's their country to defend now. It's their struggle," John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Monday.