At least 27 children have been killed in Afghanistan in three days amid fierce fighting between the Taliban and government forces, the UN has said.
The UN children’s agency Unicef said it was shocked by the “rapid escalation of grave violations against children”.
The Taliban have been making major advances across the country as foreign troops withdraw, taking six regional capitals since Friday.
They have rejected international calls for a ceasefire.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the conflict in the past month.
In a statement on Monday, Unicef said the atrocities being committed against children were growing “higher by the day”.
The 27 fatalities were recorded across three provinces – Kandahar, Khost, and Paktia. Some 136 children were also injured in these areas over the past three days, Unicef said.
“Afghanistan has long been one of the worst places on Earth to be a child but in recent weeks and, indeed, the last 72 hours, that’s got a lot worse,” Unicef Afghanistan’s Samantha Mort told the BBC.
Children have been killed and injured in roadside bombs and in the crossfire. One mother told the group that her family were asleep over the weekend when their home was hit by shrapnel, which started a fire and left her 10-year-old son with “horrific burns”. Many children are also sleeping outside after fleeing their homes.
Unicef has called on all sides to ensure that children are protected.
What is the latest with the conflict?
Violence has escalated across Afghanistan now that US-led forces have all but withdrawn following 20 years of military operations.
The Taliban have rapidly captured large swathes of countryside, and are now targeting towns and cities.
In their most significant gain since May, the Taliban are reported to have overrun the northern city of Kunduz.
The city of 270,000 people is considered a gateway to mineral-rich northern provinces. It is in a strategically important location close to the border with Tajikistan, which is used for the smuggling of opium and heroin.
It also holds symbolic significance for the Taliban because it was a key northern stronghold before 2001. The militants captured the city in 2015 and again in 2016 but have never been able to hold it for long.
Afghan officials say security forces are still fighting in the city.
The southwestern city of Zaranj was the first provincial capital to fall to the group under their sweeping offensive.
The northern cities of Sheberghan, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan and Aybak are now also reported to be under Taliban control.
The insurgents entered Aybak, the capital of Samangan province, without a fight after community elders asked for the city to be spared more violence, deputy governor Sefatullah Samangani told AFP news agency.
“The governor accepted and withdrew all the forces from the city,” he said.
Tolo News and Shamshad TV also tweeted that Afghan forces had retreated from the city without fighting. There was no immediate word from the armed forces.
Elsewhere, US and Afghan planes have been carrying out airstrikes – the advance of the militants has not been halted, but Afghan officials say dozens of Taliban have died.
Heavy fighting has been reported in Pul-e-Khumri and in Mazar-e-Sharif, a trading hub on the border with Uzbekistan. Army commanders say they have pushed back militants from its outskirts.
On Monday morning a loud explosion was heard outside police headquarters in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, where the two sides have been fighting for more than a week.
Residents said about 20 civilians had been killed in the past two days, and a school and a clinic destroyed.
The capture of several cities and ongoing heavy fighting in others has led thousands of civilians to flee. Families, some including young children and pregnant women, have abandoned their homes and headed for the capital Kabul.
The US Department of Defense on Monday said the security situation in Afghanistan was “not going in the right direction”, but that Afghan security forces were capable of fighting the group.
“These are their military forces, these are their provincial capitals, their people to defend and it’s really going to come down to the leadership that they’re willing to exude here at this particular moment,” spokesman John Kirby said.
Twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan – what happened when?
From 9/11, to intense fighting on the ground, and now full withdrawal of US-led forces, here’s what happened.
Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, carries out the largest terror attack ever conducted on US soil.
Four commercial airliners are hijacked. Two are flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, which collapses. One hits the Pentagon building in Washington, and one crashes into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.
First air strikes
A US-led coalition bombs Taliban and al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan. Targets include Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
The Taliban, who took power after a decade-long Soviet occupation was followed by civil war, refuse to hand over Bin Laden. Their air defences and small fleet of fighter aircraft are destroyed.
Fall of Kabul
The Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban rebels backed by coalition forces, enters Kabul as the Taliban flee the city.
By the 13 November 2001, all Taliban have either fled or been neutralised. Other cities quickly fall.
After protracted negotiations at a “loya jirga” or grand assembly, the new Afghan constitution is signed into law. The constitution paves the way for presidential elections in October 2004.
Hamid Karzai becomes president
Hamid Karzai, the leader of the Popalzai Durrani tribe, becomes the first president under the new constitution. He serves two five-year terms as president.
UK troops deployed to Helmand
British troops arrive in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the country.
Their initial mission is to support reconstruction projects, but they are quickly drawn into combat operations. More than 450 British troops lose their lives in Afghanistan over the course of the conflict.
US President Barack Obama approves a major increase in the number of troops sent to Afghanistan. At their peak, they number about 140,000.
The so-called “surge” is modelled on US strategy in Iraq where US forces focussed on protecting the civilian population as well as killing insurgent fighters.
Osama Bin Laden killed
The leader of al-Qaeda is killed in an assault by US Navy Seals on a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan. Bin Laden’s body is removed and buried at sea. The operation ends a 10-year hunt led by the CIA. The confirmation that Bin Laden had been living on Pakistani soil fuels accusations in the US that Pakistan is an unreliable ally in the war on terror.
Death of Mullah Omar
The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, dies. His death is kept secret for more than two years.
According to Afghan intelligence, Mullah Omar dies of health problems at a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Pakistan denies that he was in the country.
Nato ends combat operations
At a ceremony in Kabul, Nato ends its combat operations in Afghanistan. With the surge now over, the US withdraws thousands of troops. Most of those who remain focus on training and supporting the Afghan security forces.
The Taliban launch a series of suicide attacks, car bombings and other assaults. The parliament building in Kabul, and the city of Kunduz are attacked. Islamic State militants begin operations in Afghanistan.
Death toll announcement
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says more than 45,000 members of his country’s security forces have been killed since he became leader in 2014. The figure is far higher than previously thought.
US signs deal with Taliban
The US and the Taliban sign an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, in Doha, Qatar. The US and Nato allies agree to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.
Date for final withdrawal
US forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, exactly 20 years since 9/11. There are strong indications that the withdrawal may be complete before the official deadline.