KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters tortured and killed members of an ethnic minority in Afghanistan after recently overrunning their village, Amnesty International said, fueling fears that they will again impose a brutal rule, even as they urged imams to push a message of unity at the first gathering for Friday prayers since the capital was seized.
Terrified that the new de facto rulers would commit such abuses, thousands have raced to Kabul's airport desperate to flee following the Taliban's stunning blitz through the country. Others have taken to the streets to protest the takeover — acts of defiance that Taliban fighters have violently suppressed.
The Taliban have sought to project moderation and have pledged to restore security and forgive those who fought them in the 20 years since a U.S.-led invasion. Ahead of Friday prayers, leaders urged to imams to use sermons to appeal for unity, urge people not to flee the country, and to counter "negative propaganda" about them.
But many Afghans are skeptical, and the Amnesty report provided more evidence that undercut the Taliban's claims they have changed.
The rights group said that its researchers spoke to eyewitnesses in Ghazni province who recounted how the Taliban killed nine Hazara men in the village of Mundarakht on July 4-6. It said six of the men were shot, and three were tortured to death.
The brutality of the killings was "a reminder of the Taliban's past record, and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring," said Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International.
The group warned that many more killings may gone unreported because the Taliban have cut cellphone services in many areas they've captured to prevent images from there from being published.
Separately, Reporters without Borders expressed alarm at the news that Taliban fighters killed the family member of an Afghan journalist working for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Wednesday.
"Sadly, this confirms our worst fears," said Katja Gloger of the press freedom group's German section. "The brutal action of the Taliban show that the lives of independent media workers in Afghanistan are in acute danger."
Many Afghans fear a return to the Taliban's harsh rule in the late 1990s, when the group largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, chopped off the hands of suspected thieves and held public executions.
Thousands continue to flock to Kabul's airport, braving checkpoints manned by Taliban fighters as they seek desperately to get on evacuation flights out.
Mohammad Naim, who has been among the crowd at the airport for four days trying to escape the country, said he had to put his children on the roof of a car on the first day to save them from being crushed by the mass of people. He saw other children killed after they were unable to get out of the way.
Naim, who said he had been an interpreter for U.S. forces, said he had urged others not to the come to airport.
"It is a very, very crazy situation right now and I hope the situation gets better because I saw kids dying, it is very terrible," he said.
The Pentagon said Thursday that about 2,000 people were brought out on American flights on each of the previous two days, and the State Department said 6,000 more were expected to leave that day. But thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies may be in need of escape.
Dozens of other flights have already brought hundreds more Western nationals and Afghan workers to Europe and elsewhere.
Chaos at the airport itself has sometimes hindered flights, but getting to the facility is the major challenge. Germany was sending two helicopters to Kabul to help bring small numbers of people from elsewhere in the city to the airport, officials said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted that Australian citizens have not been able to be evacuated from outside Kabul, and even in the capital the situation is difficult.
"The situation in Kabul does remain chaotic," he said.
In recent days, some Afghans have protested the Taliban in several cities — a remarkable show of defiance that fighters often met with violence. At least one person was killed Wednesday at a rally in the eastern city of Jalalabad, after demonstrators lowered the Taliban's flag and replaced it with the Afghan tricolor. Another person was seriously wounded at a protest a day later in Nangarhar province.
The demonstrations have come to the capital as well. On Thursday, a procession of cars and people near Kabul's airport carried long black, red and green banners in honor of the Afghan flag — a banner that is becoming a symbol of defiance.
Meanwhile, opposition figures gathering in the last area of the country not under Taliban rule talked of launching an armed resistance. It was not clear how serious a threat they posed given that Taliban fighters overran nearly the entire country in a matter of days with little resistance from Afghan forces.
In addition to concerns about Taliban abuses, officials have warned that Afghanistan's already weakened economy could crumble further without the massive international aid that sustained the toppled Western-backed government. The U.N. says there are dire food shortages and experts said the country was severely in need of cash with much of the government's funds abroad frozen.
After the Taliban overran Kabul the market used by many in the capital to exchange money was closed down.
Underscoring the difficulties the Taliban will face in returning the country to normal life, trader Aminullah Amin said Friday that it would stay closed for the time being. There was just too much uncertainty surrounding exchange rates, how the Taliban might regulate the market, and the possibility of looting.
"We have not decided to reopen the markets yet," he said.