Taliban fighters have taken control of large parts of the strategic city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, after hundreds of armed men launched an assault on the city.

The group hoisted its white banner over the main square after the early-morning raids on Monday, according to a witness and two security officials quoted by the Reuters news agency.

The Afghan interior ministry sent special forces and air support to the city after fighters entered the city from three different directions. 

It is the first time the Taliban has made such gains in Kunduz since the US-led invasion in 2001. The city was the Taliban's northern stronghold until its government was overthrown 14 years ago.

Battles between government forces and the Taliban were raging about 500m from the governor's compound, the deputy governor said, after he had fled to the city's airport.

Taliban also broke into the main prison in Kunduz, freeing hundreds of fellow fighters, two security officials told Reuters.

Several people, including police officers, have been killed, and scores wounded in the attacks.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 66 people had been taken to hospital, including eight dead on arrival.

Police stations surrounded

Sources in the city told Al Jazeera that Kunduz was on lockdown on Monday as security forces were fighting back. The city's streets were deserted as residents barricaded themselves indoors.


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Heavy fighting raged across the city as roads were blocked and some police stations were surrounded by Taliban fighters.

Local reports suggested that the fighters captured the provincial legislature building.

The fighters also took control of a 200-bed hospital in the city following the raid, a Taliban spokesman and a police source told Reuters.

Moein Marastial, a former parliament member from Kunduz, told Al Jazeera that a university in the city had also been taken over by the Taliban.

He said the Taliban had gained the support of Kunduz residents, who were unhappy about local government corruption.  


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"The situation is very bad. The fighting is particularly fierce in the southeastern area of the city," a Western NGO official told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.

According to Al Jazeera sources, Taliban fighters were searching houses in the city looking for government officials.

In a statement, the Taliban said security personnel were invited to join the Taliban.

The province is one of the most volatile provinces in the northern region of the country.

Afghan soldiers keep watch during a battle with the Taliban in Kunduz Province on Monday [Reuters]

The Taliban have been waging an armed struggle since a US-led invasion ousted them from power in late 2001, and have stepped up attacks during a summer offensive launched in late April against the Western-backed government in Kabul.

Taliban seized parts of Kunduz in June

Afghanistan's NATO-trained police and army have been fighting armed groups this year without the front-line help of foreign forces, which ended their combat mission in December 2014.

A residual force of around 13,000 remains for training and counterterrorism operations.

Peace overtures by the government of President Ashraf Ghani over summer ended in failure, as civilian casualties soared to a record high in the first half of 2015 according to a UN report.

It said 1,592 civilians were killed, a six percent fall over last year, while the number of injured jumped four percent to 3,329.

 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies