A Taliban assault on the Afghan strategic city of Ghazni has entered its fourth day, with the death toll climbing above 300, including civilians, security forces and Taliban fighters, according to government officials.
Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami said on Monday “about 100 security forces” were killed in the intense fighting, as well “between 20 and 30 civilians”.
Speaking at a press conference in the capital, Kabul, Bahrami said 194 Taliban fighters, including 12 of their “key commanders” had also been killed, mostly by US air raids.
According to the US military headquarters in Kabul, US aircraft conducted at least nine air raids over Saturday and Sunday.
Afghan forces are battling the Taliban after the group stormed Ghazni city, the capital of the province with the same name and a strategic point linking Kabul with southern Afghanistan – on Friday.
Information coming out of the city remains patchy and difficult to confirm after fighting destroyed most of the telecoms masts and local news media stopped broadcasting.
Roads in and out of the city have been damaged and obstructed by Taliban forces to prevent Afghan reinforcements arriving, but residents who escaped the violence on foot have described seeing dead bodies in the street and buildings on fire.
“They were burning buildings and there were dead bodies everywhere in Ghazni city and the fight was ongoing. The situation was very bad and all shops were closed,” said Abdul Wakil, a witness who fled from Ghazni.
Rik Peeperkorn, acting UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, expressed concerns for civilians caught up in the fighting in Ghazni city, where he says hospitals are running out of medicine and conditions are too dangerous to transport those in need to hospital.
“[Ghazni’s residents] have seen their city turn into a battlefield since Friday morning … parties across the conflict need to ensure that access to medical services is not denied and respect for medical facilities and staff is upheld,” he said in a statement.
The attack comes as a severe blow to President Ashraf Ghani and has dampened hopes of possible peace talks with the Taliban to end the nearly 17-year-old war.
Government officials in Kabul admitted to having been taken by surprise by the attack but insisted on Monday that Ghazni would not fall to the Taliban and that Afghan forces remained in control of key government positions and other institutions there.
Najib Danish, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman, said reinforcements have been sent Ghazni and were trying to clear it of the Taliban.
Previous reinforcements have fallen prey to Taliban ambush and Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter that Taliban forces are blocking all roads to Ghazni.
The United States have also sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces and are conducting air attacks to support Afghan troops on the ground.
The attack on Ghazni is the largest tactical operation launched by the Taliban since an unprecedented truce in June brought fighting between security forces and the armed group to a temporary pause.