International agencies are evacuating foreign staff from Kunduz, in northern , following a heavy attack by Taliban forces who entered the city on Sunday.
In a two-pronged assault, the militants have also stepped up their months-long offensive in Helmand in the south, seizing Nawa district on Sunday, according to officials, and inching closer than ever to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
Residents in Kunduz said the Taliban were occupying private homes. Many families were attempting to flee, but most roads leading out of the city were blocked. One resident, Asrala, said forces had entered his home to hide from security forces.
The Taliban attacked Kunduz from four different directions early on Sunday and had on Monday made it within 500 metres of the main square, according to residents. Their attack mimicked when they managed to seize and hold the city for two weeks.
“We are inside [the] governor’s building and we can’t go outside, there is fighting everywhere,” said an official from the provincial governor’s office. The governor, Asadullah Amarkheil, told reporters he would brief them on the situation once his family had been removed from the town.
In the early afternoon on Monday, Afghan special forces arrived from Kabul to conduct clearing operations. Afghan forces also carried out airstrikes, including in Sedarak, close to the main hospital.
When the city was last under Taliban control, , killing 42 people and razing the clinic to the ground.
Following Sunday’s attack, MSF evacuated its foreign staff, who had been based in Kunduz to look after what was left of the destroyed hospital, said a spokesman for the charity. It also cancelled a commemoration ceremony on the hospital grounds, which had been expected to draw as many as 1,000 guests.
The UN also airlifted at least one foreign staff member in the afternoon.
Last year, as Taliban fighters advanced through Kunduz, government forces fled in droves, rendering the city defenceless. However, this time, according to western security sources, local intelligence became aware hours before the attack that Taliban had infiltrated the city, which helped them resist the assault. But residents were still concerned.
“Kunduz is about to fall,” sad Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani, a member of the provincial council. “Government forces are resisting but the Taliban are too many. Only international forces can defeat the attackers,” he said.
According to a spokesman for the US military, Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, foreign forces had not yet conducted airstrikes in Kunduz.
Also on Sunday, in the country’s south, officials said the Taliban captured Nawa district close to Lashkar Gah. The militants entered the district police chief’s compound with a bomb-laden Humvee, which then detonated. The police chief, Ahmad Shah Salim, and three police officers were killed, said Mohammad Karim Attal, the provincial council chief.
The provincial governor’s office, however, insisted that the district centre in Nawa was still in government hands. Cleveland said US forces had conducted six airstrikes in Helmand since 30 September.
Afghanistan seeks aid to rebuild nation at Brussels talks
The Taliban’s offensive comes a day before the kick-off of a big conference in Brussels, where foreign donors will pledge aid to Afghanistan for the next four years.
The attacks raise concerns about leadership and coordination problems in the ranks of the Afghan security forces, their ability to repel the Taliban without assistance from Nato and US troops, and the approximately 17,000 Afghan special forces who shuttle between frontlines to shore up defences.
The attack is part of the Taliban’s stated goal of capturing a provincial capital before the end of the year. In addition to Helmand and Kunduz, the Taliban also recently came close to capturing Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan.