ISLAMABAD - Heavy fighting raged near Kunduz City Airport Tuesday as Afghanistan national security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, engaged in a counteroffensive to wrest control of the northern city, taken by the Taliban the day before.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and residents in Kunduz told VOA that heavy fighting began near the airport late on Tuesday after Taliban fighters staged a major attack on the complex, where government forces had retreated to Monday. Reports say a major portion of the airport is now under the control of the Taliban. Government officials have not commented on the latest clashes.
Earlier, the Afghan defense ministry said its security forces, including commando units, began attacking Taliban positions early in the morning in an effort to enter Kunduz, population 300,000, a strategic transportation hub in the country's north.
The defense ministry said U.S. planes also bombed insurgents at the ministry’s request.
NATO spokesman Colonel Brian Tribus confirmed the airstrike was carried out, and said the strike was done "to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces" around Kunduz.
President Ashraf Ghani told reporters in Kabul that national forces have made quick advances, retaking control of several buildings, including a newly built police station and the city's prison.
Ghani called for calm and appealed to the nation to trust Afghan security forces, saying they are determined to retake Kunduz very soon and restore peace to the region.
Pentagon: situation fluid
Taliban spokesman Mujahid rejected as government propaganda that Taliban fighters have indulged in looting banks, shops, government and non-government offices.
Taliban insurgents overran the Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday in a surprise multi-pronged offensive. This was the first time the insurgent group captured a major city since being ousted from power in 2001.
The Pentagon said the situation in Kunduz remained "fluid," but expressed confidence in Afghan security forces Tuesday.
"We've seen them respond in recent weeks and months to the challenges they've faced. And they're doing the same thing in Kunduz right now," said spokesman Peter Cook. He called the Taliban advance Monday "clearly a setback" for Afghan security forces.
Casualties from the fighting are not yet known.
Since hostilities began in Kunduz, health officials say local hospitals have received nearly 200 injured people and 16 dead.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in a statement Tuesday said that its hospital in Kunduz has treated around 50 children.
It said that the majority of patients it has treated so far "had sustained gunshot wounds and surgeons have been treating severe abdominal, limb and head injuries."
Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai, while speaking in Kabul, confirmed the deaths of 17 security forces. He urged the Taliban to cease the bloodshed and try to resolve differences through peaceful means.
The battlefield setback came as President Ghani’s government completed its first year in power. The Afghan leader has already been under fire for failing to improve governance and security around the country, and counter widespread corruption in state institutions.
Taliban flies it flag
The Taliban raised its flag over the city and freed all prisoners from the central jail shortly after taking control on Monday.
Afghan Intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil told reporters on Tuesday that there were 600 inmates in the detention center, including more than 100 "low-level" Taliban fighters.
United Nations and international rights groups have called on all sides to safeguard civilians.
The Taliban had come close to capturing Kunduz when it launched a spring offensive in April but Afghan security forces repelled the assault. President Ghani and other top officials had promised at the time they would not allow the insurgents to come closer again.