KABUL, Aug 9 (Reuters) – Afghan commandoes launched a counter-attack on Monday to try to beat back Taliban fighters who overran the northern city of Kunduz a day earlier, with residents fleeing the conflict describing the almost constant sound of gunfire and explosions.
Kunduz was one of at least three provincial capitals seized by the insurgents in the north over the weekend, as their offensive gathered pace following Washington’s announcement that it would end its military mission in Afghanistan by the end of August.
A Taliban spokesman had warned the United States on Sunday against intervening following U.S. airstrikes to support beleaguered Afghan government forces.
In the West, near the border with Iran, security officials told Reuters heavy fighting was underway on the outskirts of Herat. Arif Jalali, head of Herat Zonal Hospital said 36 people had been killed and 220 wounded in fighting over the past eleven days. More than half of the wounded were civilians, he said, and women and children were among the dead.
In the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of Taliban activity, security officials reported a loud explosion in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, on Monday morning.
The insurgents have taken dozens of districts and border crossings in recent months and put pressure on several provincial capitals, including Herat and Kandahar in the south, as foreign troops withdraw.
“US forces have conducted several airstrikes in defence of our Afghan partners in recent days,” Maj. Nicole Ferrara, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson, told CNN on Sunday, without specifying where those strikes were made.
In Kunduz, many desperate families, some with young children and pregnant women, abandoned their homes, hoping to reach the relative safety of Kabul, 315 kilometres (196 miles) to the south – a drive that would normally take around ten hours.
Police had abandoned their check-posts on the roads around the city.
Ghulam Rasool, an engineer, was trying to hire a bus to get his family to the capital as sound of gunfire reverberated through the streets of his hometown.
“We may just be forced to walk till Kabul, but we are not sure if we could be killed on the way …ground clashes were not just stopping even for 10 minutes,” Rasool told Reuters.
“It’s best we leave this city till its decided whether the Afghan government or the Taliban will now govern it.”
He and several other residents, and a security official, said Afghan commandoes had launched an operation to clear the insurgents from the city.
Taliban fighters had holed up in government buildings in the city centre, and had occupied positions commanding roads into to two defence bases on the outskirts, according to local government officials.
Over the weekend, the insurgents also occupied government buildings in the northern provincial capital of Sar-e-Pul, driving officials out of the main city to a nearby military base, Mohammad Noor Rahmani, a provincial council member of Sar-e-Pul province, said.
On Sunday evening, Ashraf Ayni, representative in parliament for Takhar province, said its capital Taloqan had fallen to the Taliban who had freed prisoners and taken control of all government buildings, driving officials to a nearby district.
And there conflicting reports on whether they had seized Sheberghan, the capital of northern Jawzjan province, where there has been heavy fighting.
The weekend had begun with the Taliban’s capture of Zaranj, on the border with Iran in Afghanistan’s southern Nimroz province, which marked the first time that they had held a provincial capital in years.
Speaking to Al-Jazeera TV on Sunday, Taliban spokesman Muhammad Naeem Wardak said there was no ceasefire agreement, and warned the United States against further intervention to support the government forces.
Suspected Taliban fighters also killed an Afghan radio station manager in Kabul and kidnapped a journalist in southern Helmand province, local government officials said on Monday, reporting the latest in a long line of attacks targeting media workers.
A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters that he had no information on either the killing in Kabul or the abducted journalist in Helmand.
The Taliban’s onslaught has sparked recriminations over the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces after 20 years of fighting the insurgents. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Daily Mail newspaper that the accord struck last year between the United States and the Taliban was a “rotten deal”.
Wallace said his government had asked some NATO allies to keep their troops in Afghanistan once the U.S. troops departed, but failed to garner enough support.
“Some said they were keen, but their parliaments weren’t. It became apparent pretty quickly that without the United States as the framework nation it had been, these options were closed off,” Wallace said.
(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)