ISLAMABAD - The Taliban staged a "large-scale" predawn attack Saturday on an important city in northern Afghanistan, even as leaders of the insurgent group are engaged in marathon peace talks with the United States on ending the deadly war.
Residents and officials said Saturday that insurgents had assaulted Kunduz, the capital of the province with the same name, from several different directions, triggering an intense day of gunbattles with Afghan government forces.
The Afghan government told the French news agency AFP late Saturday that they had "repelled" the Taliban fighters. But media reports said a suicide bomber had targeted the Kunduz police chief as he was speaking.
Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said 10 people were killed and five wounded in that attack, including the police chief.
Earlier, Afghan officials confirmed reports that the initial assault had killed at least nine government security forces and 36 insurgents.
A Taliban spokesman claimed its fighters had "killed and wounded dozens" of Afghan security force members and had captured territory.
It was not possible to verify claims made by either side. The fighting disrupted power supplies and cellphone services to Kunduz, cutting off all communications.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Roohullah Amadzai told reporters the Taliban had entered central parts of Kunduz and had taken positions in the civilian population, including the main hospital.
Ahmadzai said security forces, backed by airpower, responded to the insurgents' attack to try to force them out of the city while making sure civilians and patients were not harmed. He confirmed both Afghan and foreign forces had carried out airstrikes against Taliban positions in the city.
The Afghan city, located on a key highway providing easy access to much of northern border provinces, repeatedly has come under Taliban attack since 2015 and was briefly held twice by the insurgents. The Taliban have since taken control of much of the province.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed in his latest statement that insurgents remained in control of areas they overran at the start of the assault, and they have inflicted heavy casualties on pro-government forces during ongoing clashes.
The Taliban advances prompted top Afghan security officials to arrive in Kunduz later in the day along with the U.S. commander of international forces, General Scott Miller. A Kabul government spokesman, Feroz Bashari, said the officials will “lead clearance operations” against the insurgents. He also tweeted a picture of Miller with other officials from a meeting in the embattled city.
Late Saturday afternoon, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his explosives near a large gathering of senior Afghan security officials and forces in the center of the city. The powerful blast killed at least 10 people and injured dozens of others, officials said, citing initial reports.
Kunduz police spokesman Sarwar Hussaini who earlier in the day shared details of the attacks with the media, including VOA, was among those killed in the blast.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the bombing targeted the provincial police chief and Afghan commando forces, inflicting heavy casualties.
The United Nations said the fighting subsided in the evening, with exit routes from the city remaining compromised.
The latest battlefield insurgent attack came on a day when Taliban leaders resumed talks with U.S. interlocutors in the Gulf state of Qatar after taking a one-day break for internal consultations.
The crucial ninth round in the yearlong dialogue between the two adversaries in the 18-year-old Afghan war started on August 22 amid exceptions it would lead to a peace agreement. But it was not clear whether a deal was imminent.
The Taliban are pressing the United States and its NATO allies to pull out their troops from Afghanistan, while Washington wants counterterrorism guarantees from the insurgents, a nationwide cease-fire and the Taliban’s participation in intra-Afghan talks to permanently end hostilities in the country.
President Donald Trump said this week he plans to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from the current level of roughly 14,000. He would not discuss the fate of the residual force.
The Taliban have not responded to Trump’s latest statement, which runs counter to repeated insurgent assertions that in ongoing peace talks with the U.S., an understanding has been reached on a complete withdrawal of foreign troops.