ISLAMABAD - Sporadic clashes raged for a third day Sunday for the control of Afghanistan’s southeastern city of Ghanzi amid conflicting claims about whether the government or the Taliban insurgency controlled key installations.
Afghan army chief General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali told a news conference Sunday in Kabul his forces were conducting counter-offensives to evict Taliban fighters from the city.
The general noted that insurgents were entrenched in civilian populations and market places, forcing Afghan forces to move carefully and slowly to prevent civilian casualties.
Afghan security forces remained in control of all strategic positions in Ghazni, including the office of the provincial governor, police headquarters, the main prison and the office of the Afghan spy agency, Yaftali said.
“Afghan security forces in the next two days will be able to restore peace and stability to Ghanzi and reopen the highway to enable our countrymen to travel from south and west to Kabul,” vowed the army chief.
Hospital officials and residents fleeing the city have told local reporters the provincial hospital received more than 100 bodes of Afghan soldiers and police personnel, and said the hospital was running out of space.
Taliban insurgents also assaulted and overran the Ajristan district west of Ghazni, killing dozens of Afghan security forces. The Taliban is said to be controlling most of the 18 districts in Ghazni province.
President Ashraf Ghani late on Sunday chaired an emergency meeting of top security and intelligence officials to take stock of the situation in the troubled province.
Later he said in a series of tweets that top security officials briefed him on the developing military and humanitarian situation in the city and the province.
Insurgents ambushed a large Afghan military convoy heading for Ghazni late Sunday, sparking heavy clashes about 80 kilometers from the embattled city, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Muajid told VOA.
Afghan television station TOLOnews quoted its sources as confirming the insurgent attack on the convoy while it was traveling through Maidan Wardak province. The television said there were no immediate reports of casualties, while Mujahid claimed the Taliban attack killed dozens of Afghan soldiers.
The Taliban on Friday staged a large-scale attack from multiple directions to try to capture Ghazni, which is located on the main highway linking northern and southern Afghan provinces, including the national capital of Kabul.
The fighting has brought the traffic to a halt, stranding hundreds of passengers for the past three days.
Hostilities in Ghazni have disrupted telecommunication services, making it nearly impossible to verify conflicting claims about whether the Taliban or the Afghan government controlled key buildings in the city.
Afghan reporters tweeted Sunday that insurgents killed dozens of government troops before overrunning and setting on fire the provincial police headquarters in Ghanzi. Hospitals in the city reportedly were running out of space due large number of casualties.
Kabul again accuses Pakistan's ISI
Yaftali directly accused neighboring Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI, of supporting the Taliban, though he did not immediately offer any evidence. “All terrorists stop and receive training in Pakistan before entering Afghanistan,” he asserted.
Yaftali repeated the allegations, after a gap of several months because recent wide-ranging talks between the two countries have eased mutual tensions and decreased terror allegations against each other.
Pakistani officials were not available to respond immediately to the Afghan army’s charges. Islamabad denies it is helping the Taliban.
Taliban delegation travels to Uzbekistan
Meanwhile, Afghan officials insisted Sunday that neighboring Uzbekistan consulted Kabul before hosting a Taliban political delegation last week for talks.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed its officials from the Qatar-based political office concluded a four-day visit to Uzbekistan on Friday, where it held talks with the foreign minister and the Uzbek presidential envoy for Afghanistan.
The insurgent spokesman added that the two sides among other things exchanged views “about the withdrawal of foreign forces and how to achieve peace in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban wants U.S. and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan before participating in any intra-Afghan peace talks. The insurgent group last month held a preliminary round of talks with a high-level American delegation in Qatar. But the Taliban simultaneously has not eased battlefield activities, making territorial advances and inflicting heavy casualties on government forces.