By Feroz Sultani and Folad Hamdard
Taliban fighters battled their way into the centre of Kunduz city in northern Afghanistan on Monday and freed hundreds of fellow militants from jail, in one of the most serious security breaches in 14 years of war, witnesses and officials said.
The assault was the second time this year that the hardline Islamist movement has besieged Kunduz city, defended by Afghan forces battling largely without NATO’s support after it withdrew most of its troops last year.
The insurgents launched a three-sided surprise offensive at around dawn, and by mid-afternoon they had hoisted their white flag over Kunduz’s main square, about 200 metres from the governor’s compound, according to a Reuters witness.
The witness also said battles were raging in two districts nearby.
According to two security officials, Taliban gunmen, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades, overwhelmed security guards and broke into the main city prison, freeing hundreds of fighters.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan evacuated its Kunduz compound on Monday morning, soon after the assault began.
“They’ve been relocated within Afghanistan,” said UN spokesman Dominic Medley, declining to say where or how many staff were evacuated.
Abdullah Danishy, deputy governor of Kunduz, confirmed the insurgents were closing in.
“There is fierce fighting ongoing at Spin Ghar park, which is some half a kilometre away from the governor’s compound,” Danishy told Reuters by telephone from the city airport after fleeing his office.
However, he insisted the provincial centre would not fall.
“We have reinforcements coming from other areas and will beat back the Taliban.”
“IT LOOKS GRIM”
The Kunduz assault marks a troubling development in the insurgency, although Afghan forces have managed to drive the Taliban back from most of the territory they have gained this year during an escalation in violence.
“It is certainly the first major breach of a provincial capital since 2001,” said Graeme Smith, senior analyst for International Crisis Group.
“They are choking the Afghan forces from all sides. It looks pretty grim.”
He said Afghan reinforcements could still take back the areas of downtown Kunduz now in Taliban hands, but the insurgents may be tough to dislodge.
“Once they get inside an urban area, your air assets and artillery become much less useful,” Smith said.
The Taliban were ousted in 2001 after a US-led campaign, and have been fighting to reimpose their rule in sporadic clashes ever since. They have stepped up their offensive this year as NATO forces drew down to just a few thousand troops.
One Reuters witness saw buildings on fire in the south of the city, and saw Taliban fighters entering a 200-bed government-run hospital.
Dozens of panicked residents fled to the city’s main airport but were turned away by security forces.
Afghan military helicopters were firing rockets at militants in three areas on the city’s outskirts, a police spokesman said. Artillery and gunfire could be heard in the city centre from just after daybreak.
“Right now heavy fighting is ongoing in Khanabad, Chardara and at Imam Saheb, the main entrances to the city,” Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for Kunduz police, said. “We have enough forces and will drive them out soon.”
He added that 20 Taliban fighters had been killed and three Afghan police wounded in the clashes.
Special forces from the Afghan police and army were on their way from neighbouring Balkh province to help defend Kunduz, a Balkh police commander said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid urged Kunduz residents to stay inside.
“The mujahideen are trying to avoid any harm to Kunduz residents,” he said on his official Twitter account, referring to Taliban fighters.
A hospital official confirmed the Taliban had entered the hospital briefly, apparently looking for wounded government fighters.
“They just visited our rooms. They didn’t harm anybody and didn’t damage anything. They left soon after,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
The once-quiet north of Afghanistan has seen escalating violence in recent years. Kunduz city was the centre of fierce fighting in April as the Taliban sought to gain territory after the end of NATO’s combat mission at the end of 2014.
A scaled-down NATO presence now mostly trains and advises Afghan forces, although US drones still target militant leaders and a US counter-terrorist force also operates in the country.