Afghan government forces wrested back control of parts of Kunduz city early Thursday morning, but within hours, Taliban fighters had regrouped to try and reclaim the city it captured earlier this week.
“Our operation conducted by special forces started around 9pm and by 3.30am we retook the city,” Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the interior ministry, told The Telegraph.
Afghan government forces were backed by two US air strikes early on Wednesday evening and coalition forces support, confirmed Col Brian Tribus, a US military spokesman.
According to one local resident, as dawn broke over the strategic northern city, Afghan security forces removed the Taliban flag in the main square and reassured residents they could resume their normal lives.
“There are Afghan police and soldiers everywhere,” said one resident in the morning, who asked not to be named, “in literally every corner and street. I am confident they have control of the city.”
However, within hours, it seemed far less certain that the Taliban were willing to give up Kunduz so easily.
Local residents reported that some militants, who had been hiding in residential homes, emerged to try and recapture the city. Sporadic gun battles soon turned into heavy ground fighting.
According local sources, the Taliban regained control of the main square, and were engaged in heavy fighting at the governor’s compound and other key government buildings.
Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, who posted unverified photos on social media of the Taliban flag once again flying over the main square, said the insurgent group had reclaimed control of most of the city. It is not possible to verify that claim
Although Afghan officials remained upbeat that they would defeat the Taliban in Kunduz city, they also conceded that the battle was not yet over. “The operation has not yet ended,” Mr Seddiqi said.
The fall of the provincial capital, even temporarily, highlighted the stubborn insurgency's potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds in the south of the country.
Security officials told AFP the militants had slowly infiltrated Kunduz during the recent Eid al-Adha festival, launching a Trojan Horse attack that enabled them to capture it within hours on Monday.
The development coincided with the first anniversary of Ashraf Ghani's national unity government.
Residents described a terrifying night of heavy fighting. Another local resident, Noor, said from his home close to the airport he heard “constant air bombardments and gunfire from 10pm.”
Graphic photos shared on social media showed numerous bodies of dead Taliban fighters lying in the city streets. It was unclear how many insurgent fighters had been killed, but Mr Seddiqi said it was in the hundreds.
No Afghan security forces nor coalition troops are believed to have suffered casualties.
However, Médecins Sans Frontières, who runs the main trauma hospital in Kunduz, said that since Monday, 296 patients had been admitted, including 64 wounded children. 40 patients had died and 74 remained in critical condition.
Outside Kunduz city, battles between Afghan forces and the Taliban continued. The province’s second largest city, Imam Sahib, which fell to the Taliban yesterday, was also recaptured by Afghan forces early this morning, but “at least 60 per cent of the district remained in Taliban hands,” according to an Afghan security expert.
The Taliban also remained in control of large swathes of the province overall, and in neighbouring provinces. This included the strategically important highway between Kunduz and Baghlan to the south, where earlier this week Taliban fighters had attacked military reinforcements dispatched to Kunduz.
Amnesty International on Thursday told how Kunduz residents who had fled the city said the Taliban had created death squads and produced a "hit list" of targets, including women, children, activists and journalists.
Compiled from records in the National Directorate of Security and other government and NGO offices - which the Taliban now control - the list included addresses, phone numbers and photos, and was used by Taliban fighters, assisted by cadres of young boys, to conduct house-to-house searches to locate and abduct their targets, including women.
Two midwives were reportedly gang raped and murdered by the Taliban, who accused them of providing reproductive health services to women in the city.
Relatives of Afghan National Police and soliders were being singled out and killed, including children.
“The harrowing accounts we’ve received paint a picture of a reign of terror during the Taliban’s brutal capture of Kunduz this week," said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty's Afghanistan researcher.
“The multiple, credible reports of killings, rapes and other horrors meted out against the city’s residents must prompt the Afghan authorities to do more now to protect civilians, in particular in areas where more fighting appears imminent.