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Taliban Again Threaten Key Northern Afghan City

Members of an Afghan militia look on during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces near the Qala-e-Zal district in Kunduz province, May 7, 2017.
Members of an Afghan militia look on during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces near the Qala-e-Zal district in Kunduz province, May 7, 2017.

Heavy fighting is raging in northern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency has overrun several districts since launching its so-called yearly “spring offensive” more than a week ago.

The battlefield advances have again brought insurgents close enough to threaten Kunduz, the strategically important city the Taliban had briefly captured in 2015.

Officials told local media Sunday that Afghan forces were battling the insurgents in Charkhab area on the outskirts of the provincial capital.

The fighting has effectively blocked the main highway linking Kunduz to the conflict-hit Khan Abad district and to the northern Takhar province. Afghan security officials say army operations to reopen the highway are underway and have killed dozens of Taliban fighters.

On Saturday, the Taliban captured nearby Qala-e-Zal district after staging a multi-prong offensive on the area that borders the former Soviet Central Asian state of Tajikistan.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri, however, insisted government forces staged a “tactical” withdrawal to protect civilians and surrounding areas. He claimed a counteroffensive to retake Qala-e-Zal is underway.

But a Taliban spokesman dismissed official claims Sunday, saying there was no fighting in the district, the insurgent group was in full control, and life is returning to normalcy there.

There are no casualty details available from either side.

US drone attack

Meanwhile, a U.S. drone attack in the eastern province of Nangarhar has killed at least 27 Islamic State militants and wounded 13 others. A provincial government spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told VOA on Sunday the strike occurred in the mountainous Achin district.

Fighting has also been raging for days in the northeastern Badkhashan province where Taliban insurgents are said to be consolidating their hold on the recently captured Zebak district and staging attacks on nearby districts.

Possible spillover effects of the Afghan conflict has been a cause of concern for neighboring Central Asian states because some of them are already struggling to tackle domestic Islamist extremists.

In a bid to allay those fears, the Taliban reiterated Sunday its combat mission is solely directed against Afghanistan’s “foreign occupiers and their internal allies”, an apparent reference to the U.S.-led NATO military mission and the Afghan government.

“We have no intention of meddling in others’ affairs and nor will we allow others to interfere in our internal affairs,” a statement quoted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid as reassuring Afghanistan’s neighboring countries.

“However, the liberation of our land from foreign occupation and the establishment of an Afghan-inclusive government is our natural right and we will continue our struggle until we have achieved this goal,” Mujahid added.

Afghan authorities maintain militants from Central Asian states have been spotted in Taliban ranks in recent months while U.S. military commanders allege Russia is also arming the insurgents.

Moscow denies the charges as groundless and as an attempt by the U.S.-led military mission to place blame for failing to stabilize the war-shattered country.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Waziri has also accused neighboring Pakistan of helping the Taliban, charges Islamabad rejects.

In its report for the first quarter of 2017, the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR noted the government controlled nearly 60 percent of 407 Afghan districts, but 11.1 percent or 45 districts were under insurgent control on influence.

The rest of the area is contested, the government watch dog said, quoting the U.S. military assessment prior to the Taliban spring offensive on April 28.