The Taliban launched two large-scale, coordinated assaults on opposite ends of Afghanistan on Monday, attacking the northern city of Kunduz from several directions and killing a police chief in the south where they threatened to overrun a district in the insurgents' heartland of Helmand.
Officials in northern Kunduz province and in Helmand described fierce, well-planned operations, involving a large number of gunmen who attacked under cover of darkness. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, attacks on civilians and soldiers claimed at least seven more lives on Monday.
The Kunduz attack came a year after the insurgents took control of the city and held off Afghan security forces, backed by US troops and air power, for several days there. Witnesses and police said the insurgents, who entered the city in the early hours, were attacking the governor's compound and police headquarters, while some officials were seen fleeing to the airport.
The attacks came as President Ashraf Ghani prepared to head to Brussels for a key international aid conference this week, where he expects donors to pledge $3 billion (£2.3bn) a year in assistance for his impoverished, war-torn nation.
Sheer Ali Kamawal, commander of the 808 Tandar police zone in Kunduz, told Reuters that the attack began at around midnight and fighting was going on in and around the city. Some Taliban fighters had entrenched themselves in homes.
The fighters appear to have slipped through a defensive security line set up around Kunduz, entering the city itself from four directions before clashes broke out, witnesses in the city told Reuters.
In Kunduz, Police spokesman Mahfozullah Akbari said security forces were preparing to drive out the fighters, who had infiltrated the Khak Kani area in the city's southwest.
“The Taliban are inside some civilian houses and we have to carry out operations very carefully,” he said.
Military helicopters flew overhead and gunfire could be heard in Kunduz. Residents piled into cars and trailers to escape the city centre and shops were shut. Several checkpoints were burned out but there was little actual fighting as security forces held back from confrontation in the city centre.
However, witnesses also saw Taliban fighters armed with AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades walking around the deserted streets of the city, entering homes and taking up position on rooftops.
The fall of Kunduz last year was one of the most serious blows suffered by the Western-backed government in Kabul since the withdrawal of most international troops in 2014.
Although the insurgents abandoned Kunduz after a few days, the capture of a provincial capital underlined their growing strength and exposed flaws in Afghan security forces and the city has remained effectively besieged ever since.
“Every day the militants come to the city and are pushed back by security forces,” said Amruddin Wali, a member of the provincial council as he stood with security forces on the edges of the city. “There is killing and fighting every day.”
The US military spokesman in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the Naro-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul, said the situation in Kunduz was “fluid” and US forces were ready to assist.
“Our Afghan partners are responding to the increased Taliban activity within the area, and US forces have multiple assets and enablers in the area to provide support”.
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The assault on Kunduz came as the Taliban have stepped up attacks in different parts of Afghanistan, including the southern province of Helmand, where they have been threatening the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
In Helmand, insurgents attacked a police headquarters in Naway district, killing the local police chief.
Afzel Khan, a policeman who survived the attack, said a suicide car bomber hit the compound around 2.30 a.m., blasting through the gate and allowing gunmen in afterward.
Provincial spokesman Omar Zwak said police chief Ahmad Shah Khan was killed. Mr Zwak couldn't confirm other casualties and denied the district had fallen to the Taliban.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said at least 10 policemen were killed in the attack and another 20 wounded. The figures could not be officially confirmed.
Elsewhere on Monday, an Afghan soldier was killed and three were wounded when a bicycle bomb targeted an army vehicle in the country's capital, said Sadiq Muradi, a Kabul police official. No group immediately claimed responsibility for that bombing.
In northern Jawzjan province, at least six people were killed and around 45 wounded when a bomb rigged to a motorcycle was detonated by remote control in a busy shopping district, according to Mohammad Reza Ghafori, the provincial governor's spokesman. He said the attack took place in the Darzab district on Monday, a bazaar day, and that he expected the death toll to rise.
Associated Press and ReutersReuse content