KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Taliban fighters mounted a coordinated assault on the northern city of Kunduz overnight, attacking from four directions and entering urban areas and threatening a repeat of the operation in which they seized the city exactly a year ago.
Sheer Ali Kamawal, commander of the 808 Tandar police zone in Kunduz, said the attack began at around midnight (1930 GMT Sunday) and fighting was still going on in and around the city. Some Taliban fighters had entrenched themselves in residents’ houses.
Military helicopters flew overhead and gunfire could be heard in Kunduz, where Afghan troops backed by American air strikes and special forces were fighting a year ago to the day to drive out insurgents who had raised the Taliban flag in the city centre.
Police spokesman Mahfozullah Akbari said security forces were preparing an operation to drive out the fighters, who had set up in the Khak Kani area in the southwest of the city.
“The Taliban are inside some civilian houses and we have to carry out operations very carefully,” he said.
A statement from the interior ministry said reinforcements were being sent to the city.
Monday’s attack, a day before the start of a major donor conference in Brussels, underlines the precarious security situation in Afghanistan, where government forces are estimated to have control over no more than two thirds of the country.
“A massive operation started on Kunduz capital from four directions early this morning,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in his official Twitter account.
He said the Nawabad area with four checkpoints had been captured and a number of soldiers had been killed. It was not immediately possible to verify the claim.
A Reuters reporter saw at least five Taliban fighters armed with AK-47 assault rifles, machines guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the city. He saw fighters entering the houses of residents and taking up position on rooftops.
ATTACKS ACROSS AFGHANISTAN
The attack came as the Taliban have stepped up operations in different parts of Afghanistan, including the strategic southern province of Helmand, where they have been threatening the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
On Monday, Taliban fighters, now positioned just across the Helmand river from the centre of Lashkar Gah, also took control of Nawa district to the south of the city, inflicting casualties and killing the local police chief, officials said.
Heavy fighting has also continued along the main highway to Tarin Kot, the provincial capital of Uruzgan in the south, where a Taliban raid on Sept. 8 also sparked fears of another collapse like that in Kunduz last year.
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 international troops at the end of 2014.
Although the insurgents abandoned the city after a few days, the demonstration that they were able to take a provincial capital underlined their growing strength and exposed serious flaws in Afghan security forces.
Afghanistan’s international partners are due to start a two-day conference in Brussels on Tuesday, where they are expected to approve maintaining billions of dollars in funding for the government over the next four years.
(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Paul Tait)