A Taliban suicide bomber has struck a main square in northern Afghanistan’s city of Kunduz where Afghan forces had gathered to defend the city from falling to the group, killing at least 10 soldiers and civilians, officials told Reuters news agency.
The attack followed a major offensive by Taliban on Kunduz in the early hours of Saturday morning, setting off gun battles and air strikes through the day in a bid to gain control of the city located on a key highway providing easy access to much of northern border provinces.
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The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack even as its leaders hold talks with negotiators from the United States to finalise a deal with for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Shortly before the suicide bombing, President Ashraf Ghani claimed the Afghan security forces “repelled” the coordinated Taliban assault on Kunduz amid competing claims from both sides.
“The Taliban attacked Kunduz today and caused damages to civilians and their houses. They wanted to create an atmosphere of fear in the city,” Ghani said in a statement.
“Their attack was repelled by our brave security forces.”
A few hours earlier, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed Saturday’s attack had resulted in the capture of several important establishments.
“The Taliban attacked Kunduz city from several directions this morning. We are in the city now capturing government buildings one after the other,” he told reporters.
Officials said the fighting started around 1:00 am (2030 GMT on Friday), when Taliban attackers advanced on the city from several directions.
The interior ministry said at least 36 Taliban fighters were killed in ground and air operations in three areas of Kunduz city and clearance operations were underway.
An air strike in Zakhil area killed 20 Taliban fighters including two commanders, Afghan security officials said.
Taliban spokesmen were not immediately available to confirm the casualty figures.
‘Taliban seeking shelter in homes’
At least three civilians were killed in the battles and 41 wounded were taken to hospitals, said Ehsanullah Fazli, head of the public health department in Kunduz city.
Electricity and most telephone services were cut, and residents took shelter in their houses, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of the fighting.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a statement said movement constraints for humanitarian personnel and disruption of phone lines were posing a challenge to assessing the situation in Kunduz as exit routes from the city remain contested.
“Electricity was interrupted last night [Friday] and any further cuts this evening [Saturday] may create problems for residents who rely on pumped wells for their water needs,” OCHA stated.
Government officials in Kunduz and Kabul said the Taliban were seeking shelter inside homes and some of the fighters had entered the main hospital in the city.
“The city is completely empty, shops are locked, people aren’t moving, and light and heavy weapons can be heard in several parts of the city,” said local resident Khaluddin, who like many Afghans goes by a single name.
“As always, the Taliban have taken positions in civilian areas,” Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in a tweet.
The attack on Kunduz came as US and Taliban negotiators continue a ninth round of talks in Doha. Western diplomats had widely expected an announcement to have been reached by now, but progress appears to have slowed in recent days.
On Thursday, a US commando was killed in the southern province of Zabul, marking at least the 15th American combat deaths in Afghanistan this year.
The Taliban attack shows they “don’t believe in the peace opportunity provided by the US and the government of Afghanistan”, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter.
“On the one hand they are talking with the US, on the other hand they are attacking people’s houses and villages. We will not leave their attack unanswered.”
In late September 2015, the Taliban attacked Kunduz, overwhelming local forces and briefly seizing the city. It was only through extensive US air support that the Taliban were repelled.
The event garnered particular global attention after a US gunship struck a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), killing dozens of patients and staff.
The fall of Kunduz also underscored the vulnerability of Afghan security forces and played a role in stopping the pull-out of US forces under former President Barack Obama.
Since then, the city has come under frequent Taliban attack but the fighters have not been able to repeat a full capture.