The first international commercial flight under Afghanistan's new Taliban interim government departed Kabul on Thursday carrying more than 100 foreigners, including some U.S. citizens left behind after last month's chaotic Western airlift.
The flight marked an important step in the Taliban's efforts to create a functioning state after they seized power last month, although there were growing reports of violence against women, foreigners and journalists at the hands of the Islamists.
U.N. Special Envoy on Afghanistan Deborah Lyons told the Security Council that nongovernmental organisations supporting women were being targeted, women's freedoms had been restricted and the United Nations' Afghan staff were being harassed and intimidated.
"The U.N. cannot conduct its work - work that is so essential to the Afghan people - if its personnel are subjected to intimidation, fear for their lives, and cannot move freely," Lyons told the Security Council.
An internal U.N. security document seen by Reuters on Aug. 25 described dozens of incidents including veiled threats, the looting of U.N. offices and physical abuse of staff since Aug. 10, five days before the Taliban swept to power.
Senior U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis told the Security Council the United States was "outraged at reports that members of the Taliban have engaged in reprisals against U.N. staff throughout the country. This is simply unacceptable."
The harassment of U.N staff came as the country was in danger of "a total breakdown of the economy and social order" without an infusion of money, Lyons said.
She also said there were rising reports of the Taliban imposing curbs on women similar to those when they ruled from 1996 to 2001, despite a promise by leaders to respect women's rights in accordance with sharia, or Islamic law.
About 113 people were aboard the flight from Kabul to Doha operated by state-owned Qatar Airways, officials said. The passengers included U.S., Canadian, Ukrainian, German and British citizens, a source with knowledge of the matter said.
Ten U.S. citizens and 11 permanent residents were on the flight, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Twitter, out of "the 39 we invited."
Qatar and Turkey have helped the Taliban reopen the airport and a source said the passengers were transported in a Qatari convoy after safe passage was agreed with the Taliban. In Doha, they will initially stay in a compound hosting Afghan and other evacuees.
International flights have flown in and out with officials, technicians and aid in recent days, but this was the first such civilian flight since the hectic evacuation of 124,000 foreigners and at-risk Afghans that followed the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.
"Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan," Qatari special envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said from the tarmac, quoted by Al Jazeera.
There would also be a flight on Friday, he said.
The departure of foreigners from Kabul airport will mean little to Afghans still barred from leaving the country and fearful for the future under the Taliban's radical interpretation of Islamic law.
The previous Taliban government was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States masterminded by al Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan.
The Taliban's all-male interim government announced this week includes hardline members of that administration as well as militants wanted in the United States on terrorism charges, raising doubts it will receive recognition by the West.
The United States and its allies view Afghan assets overseas as a key lever to pressure the Taliban. U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has no plans to release billions in Afghan gold, investments and foreign currency reserves that it has frozen.
The United Nations warned that the freezing overseas of some $10 billion in Afghan assets - to keep it out of Taliban hands - would cause "a severe economic downturn" and could push millions more Afghans into poverty and hunger.
"The economy must be allowed to breathe for a few more months, giving the Taliban a chance to demonstrate flexibility and a genuine will to do things differently this time, notably from a human rights, gender and counterterrorism perspective," Lyons told the Security Council.
A newspaper editor said two of his journalists were beaten in police custody this week after covering the women's protest in Kabul where they were detained by the Taliban.
Zaki Daryabi, founder and editor-in-chief of the Etilaat Roz newspaper, shared images on social media of two male reporters, one with large, red welts across his lower back and legs and the other with similar marks on his shoulder and arm.
Both men's faces were also bruised and cut in the pictures, which were verified by Reuters.