Afghan forces battled the Taliban in the northern city of Kunduz for the third straight day on Wednesday and American helicopters provided air support to troops on the ground in the wake of the multipronged attack on the city launched by insurgents this week.
The fighting in Kunduz, which fell briefly to the Taliban a year ago, came as Afghanistan’s leaders and officials from over 70 nations gathered in Brussels, seeking to drum up billions of dollars for the cash-strapped Kabul government as it battles the powerful Taliban insurgency and rampant corruption.
Afghan General Qasim Jungalbagh, the provincial police chief, said Taliban gunmen launched fresh attacks on Afghan forces in Kunduz from the south and east early on Wednesday.
He said “clearance operations” have begun inside the city but that heavy clashes continue on the outskirts. “Once again insurgents attacked our forces from two different directions and heavy battles are taking place to the south and east of the city,” Jungalbagh said.
Since pushing into Kunduz on Monday and briefly hoisting their flag at the main intersection, the Taliban were pushed back but their fighters hunkered down in residential homes, slowing the counter-offensive by the Afghans.
The US military was providing air support to Afghan forces fighting on Wednesday to secure a number of areas in the city, US Army Brigadier General Charlie Cleveland said.
The US military spokesman described the fighting as “sporadic,” saying that since Tuesday night, “US forces have conducted two engagements from the air to defend friendly forces.” He did not provide further details.
Jungalbagh said 42 insurgents have been killed and more than 25 others wounded in the battles. Earlier, the Defense Ministry said five Afghan security personnel were killed and 13 others wounded.
Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, head of the Kunduz provincial council, said food prices have almost tripled since the attack began and that food, water and electricity are all in short supply.
The Taliban said in a statement emailed to media that they have taken the Kunduz office of the national intelligence agency but the claim could not be immediately confirmed and the insurgents regularly exaggerate battlefield successes.
Kunduz, a major crossroads in the country’s north, briefly fell to the Taliban a year ago before they were beaten back by Afghan forces with the help of US airstrikes.
The Taliban launched two large-scale, coordinated assaults in Afghanistan earlier on Monday. Taliban attacked a northern Afghanistan city from several directions and killed 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. 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.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, attacks on civilians and soldiers claimed at least seven more lives on Monday.
Residents and officials said the fighters attacked from all directions Monday’s assault. Mahmood Danish, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial governor, said security forces managed to keep them at bay. The Interior Ministry said a policeman was killed and four were wounded in the ongoing fighting. A ministry statement said the situation was being monitored in case reinforcements are needed.
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 USD 3 billion a year in assistance for his impoverished, war-torn nation.
Kunduz is the capital of the strategically important Kunduz province, a breadbasket region that borders Tajikistan to the north and sits on a major crossroad in the country. The city was overrun by the Taliban in September 2015, the first time the militant group had taken a major urban centre since launching the insurgency 15 years ago. Kunduz came under threat again in April, when Afghan forces aided by US troops and air power pushed the Taliban back into the surrounding districts.
In the attack, the Taliban used residential areas in Kunduz and Afghan “security forces are being very careful to avoid civilian casualties while shooting back at the enemy,” said Danish. The Afghan air force was also supporting the ground forces in the fight, he added.
The US military spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said the Kunduz situation was being monitored but that the international alliance was not seeing evidence “to support the reports that Kunduz is under significant attack.”
Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, head of the Kunduz provincial council, said the heavy battles had forced government offices, schools and shops in Kunduz to close.