ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Afghan officials said security forces were still battling Taliban insurgents Tuesday in the key northern city of Kunduz, more than a day after the militants staged a multiprong offensive.
The officials said the process of securing the city was being slowed Taliban gunmen hiding in civilian homes.
Residents told VOA late Monday fighting was raging in central parts of the provincial capital, which briefly fell to the Taliban a year ago.
A Taliban spokesman claimed its fighters raised the Islamist insurgency's white flag on the city's main square after Afghan forces retreated.
However, NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement late Monday the government controls Kunduz city and Afghan security forces were in control of the main square with additional reinforcements on the way.
"U.S. forces have multiple assets and enablers in the area to provide support," it added.
It was not immediately possible to independently ascertain claims made by warring sides.
Meanwhile, a local media watchdog has called on all the sides to the conflict to ensure safety of dozens of reporters in Kunduz.
"As violence is ongoing, all sides should take special measures to ensure journalists are physically protected and given access to information," said the Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC).
The Taliban released a video to journalists showing its fighters purportedly advancing toward the center of the city and taking control of the central intersection. Insurgents are also shown marching on empty streets in central Kunduz while a commentator describes circumstances that led to the fall of the city to the Taliban, though it is not possible to ascertain the authenticity of the video.
Residents told VOA that when they woke up Monday they saw Taliban fighters in the streets of Khakani, a western neighborhood of the provincial capital, where insurgents had taken up positions in civilian houses and were firing at Afghan security forces.
Earlier, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri dismissed concerns Kunduz was again on the verge of collapse to the Taliban. He told VOA that national security forces backed by air power have pushed back the insurgents, though he acknowledged heavy clashes were raging in the area.
“Their [Taliban] attacks have been repulsed and they have suffered heavy casualties and there is no serious threat to the Kunduz city,” Waziri asserted.
The United States military backed the government claims, saying it is closely monitoring the situation in Kunduz and coordinating with Afghan partners to assist, but it also played down reports of any immediate threat to the city.
“At this point, we are not observing evidence via our internal means to support the reports that Kunduz is under significant attack,” U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland told VOA.
He said that both the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and the U.S. military continue to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and “will continue to do so and position our capabilities, to include air support, throughout the area as needed.”
Concerns over civilian lives
Responding to the news that Taliban fighters have launched a coordinated attack on Kunduz, Amnesty International’s South Asia director, Champa Patel, has expressed concerns over risks to civilian lives.
“It is extremely worrying that Taliban fighters are exposing residents to attacks and sweeping them into a raging war, which has already cost them so much,” said Patel, urging warring sides to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, including media and humanitarian workers.
Separately, the Taliban also launched attacks on the Nawa district of the largest Afghan province of Helmand, where insurgents are in control of several districts. Local media and insurgent sources say the Taliban has overrun the district, but officials contested those claims.
The provincial government in a statement confirmed the killing of the district police chief in the fighting, but denied reports of significant territorial advances by the Taliban. It also claimed Afghan forces killed at least 45 insurgents, including their district commander, in the fighting.
Defense ministry spokesman Waziri acknowledged intense fighting in Nawa and other parts of Helmand, but dismissed reports of threats to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
The Taliban captured Kunduz in late September 2015, dealing a blow to internationally-trained Afghan forces. This was the first time the Islamist group had overrun a provincial capital after it was ousted from power by a U.S.-led military coalition in 2001.
The latest fighting comes as President Ashraf Ghani and his governing partner, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, left for Brussels to participate in Tuesday’s conference on Afghanistan to secure financial aid from the international community for the next four years to support reconstruction efforts in their war-torn nation.
The European Union and Afghanistan are co-hosting the conference amid concerns that conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as the worst migration crisis in decades, are driving international attention from the Afghan problem.
Afghan leaders plan to brief the gathering on progress they have achieved in addressing challenges of security, corruption, economic and human development.
While efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks have not yet produced results, Ghani is expected to present last week’s peace deal he signed with the second-largest Afghan insurgent group, Hizb-e-Islami, as a major step toward ending the conflict.