Eyewitness to a Sudden and Bloody Liberation

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Several Western reporters, including TIME's, made their way into town before the Alliance and encountered scenes of both celebration and violence. In the Taimani district, jubilant crowds, giddy with relief that the fighting had passed them by, cheered foreigners, flew once banned kites and joyrode in their cars. From the back of one, a pretty teenage girl, her burka thrown off, laughed and waved. Said cabdriver Mohammed Zahir: "I never thought I'd see the Taliban leave without a fight."

The overnight evaporation of the Taliban left a yawning power vacuum. In some areas local militias formed to prevent looting, with greater or lesser success. In central Pashtunistan Square, a standoff developed outside the National Bank when one group equipped with automatic rifles and a grenade launcher argued furiously with would-be looters bearing small arms and swords. Weapons were leveled, and bystanders sprinted for cover before the situation defused. Said Mohammed Rafi, 23, a mechanic: "We've had 23 years of war. People are desperately poor, and a lot of guns have been unearthed or taken from Taliban posts. The sooner government troops get here and take control, the better."

Elsewhere there was gunplay and brutal mob justice. A pair of Arab jihadists barricaded themselves in a tiny kitchen of a house near the airport and fought off armed locals for an hour before crying out the Shahadah ("There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet") and killing themselves with their own grenades. In Shahr-i-Nao, three Arabs and three Pakistanis, unaware that their comrades had abandoned the city, emerged from an office at dawn and were plunged into a protracted fire fight with residents, who finally prevailed. Several, screaming "Death to Pakistan!" jumped into a dry, concrete water channel where two soldiers lay wounded and began to kick them. Others pulled TIME's correspondent forward to watch as a civilian, his face contorted with hatred, fired short bursts from a Kalashnikov rifle into the still heaving chests of the wounded. Another man used his knife to gouge out the eyes of the third, mortally wounded foreigner.

By 11 a.m., although the Alliance's armor remained behind, the first of 2,000 armed police in distinctive charcoal gray uniforms were taking up positions at key intersections across the city, backed by army units. By evening the number of security forces in and around the city had swelled to 6,000. As the sun set on a Taliban-free Kabul for the first time in five years, a pickup truck, blaring long-banned Afghan music, slowly circled Pashtunistan Square. Men crowded onto its bed, clapping and dancing into the night.

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