Fighting has flared in eastern as Taliban insurgents threatened to storm another provincial capital, two weeks after their lightning capture of the northern city of Kunduz.
The attempt to seize Ghazni, south of Kabul, was repelled by Afghan forces but it raised security alarm bells as the revitalised militant group pushes to expand beyond its rural strongholds in the south of the country.
The violence, which prompted local shops and schools to close, follows the Taliban’s three-day occupation of Kunduz – its biggest military victory in 14 years – and other brazen attempts by the militants to overrun northern provincial capitals.
“This morning some 2,000 fighters launched attacks on Ghazni from several directions,” deputy provincial governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi told AFP.
“They managed to come as close as 5km (three miles) to Ghazni city as fierce fighting flared but were quickly pushed back by Afghan forces.”
The development comes after days of sporadic clashes and officials said Afghan military reinforcements had arrived from neighbouring provinces to secure the city.
“The Taliban’s effort to capture the city has failed,” Assadullah Shujahi Ghazni, the deputy provincial police chief, told AFP.
“The Taliban will soon realise that Ghazni is no Kunduz.”
But the assault left the streets of Ghazni deserted as many panicked residents sought to flee the city towards Kabul.
The fall of Kunduz was a stinging blow to western-trained Afghan forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since the end of Nato’s combat mission in December.
It raised the prospect of a domino effect of big cities falling into the hands of the Taliban for the first time in 14 years.
Afghan forces claim to have wrested back control of Kunduz but sporadic firefights continue with pockets of insurgents as soldiers, backed by special forces, conduct door-to-door clearance operations.
As fighting spreads in neighbouring provinces such as Badakhshan and Takhar, concerns are mounting that the seizure of Kunduz was merely the opening gambit in a new, bolder strategy to tighten the insurgency’s grip across northern Afghanistan.
The militants last week attempted to overrun Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, but were pushed back by Afghan forces with the aid of pro-government militias.
The emboldened insurgents have stepped up attacks around Afghanistan since they launched their annual summer offensive in late April.
The Taliban on Monday declared Tolo and 1TV, two of Afghanistan’s biggest television networks, as legitimate “military targets”.
The group accused them of fabricating reports that Taliban fighters raped women at a female hostel during their occupation of Kunduz.
A Taliban suicide bomber on Sunday targeted a British military convoy in Kabul in a rush-hour attack that wounded at least three civilians including a child.
In another setback to coalition forces, Nato confirmed Monday that two Americans and a Frenchman were among five people killed in a helicopter crash in Kabul.
The defence ministry in London had confirmed , ruling out any insurgent activity behind the incident.