About 5,000 Afghan families have fled their homes in the northern city of Kunduz after days of fighting between Taliban fighters and government forces, officials said on Saturday, as the deadline looms for US-led troops to withdraw.
Heavy fighting has also been reported in the provinces of Kandahar and Baghlan, where the Afghan forces claimed to have retaken areas from Taliban control but the armed group still held on to parts of Pul-e-Khumri area in central Baghlan, according to local media.
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The Taliban has taken control of dozens of districts since US-led NATO foreign forces started their final withdrawal in May.
The Afghan group, which has been waging an armed rebellion since it was toppled from power in a 2001 US-led invasion, continues to surround Kunduz city.
The Taliban briefly seized the city twice in recent years but has now captured the surrounding districts and a nearby border crossing with Tajikistan.
Ghulam Sakhi Rasouli, director of the Kunduz Refugees and Repatriation Department, told AFP news agency about 5,000 families had been displaced by the fighting, up to 2,000 of which had fled to Kabul and other provinces.
Rahmatullah Hamnawa, a journalist based in Kunduz, told Al Jazeera he was forced to move his family from one area of the city to another amid the conflict.
“We hear gunfire and fighting all night,” he said, adding that it has been at least a week since the fighting flared in parts of the city and the nearby areas.
“People fleeing Kunduz have been forced to take a circuitous route through Samangan province to Mazar-e-Sharif, about 110km (68 miles) away to the southwest. The shorter road is unsafe and dotted with checkpoints and mines,” Hamnawa said.
“But even the Samangan province, which used to be one of the safest in the country, is no longer free from violence. Hence a three-hour journey via Samangan can take up to seven now, if not more.”
Many people took refuge in a school in the city and had been provided with food and other relief items, Kunduz provincial council member Ghulam Rabbani said.
Displaced families wait for help
Video footage taken by AFP showed dozens of people, many of them women and children, sitting inside tents set up in a school compound.
“We are six families living together here for three days … you can see my children are sitting on the ground,” Juma Khan, who fled with his family, said.
“We have still not received any help. A team came today to survey some families but after a few minutes they left,” said Akhtar Mohammad, who has also taken refuge in the school.
Another 8,000 families have been displaced across the Kunduz province following a month of sporadic clashes between the Taliban and government forces, Rasouli said.
He said authorities were unable to provide relief items to all the displaced families across the province.
Kunduz city’s public health director Ehsanullah Fazli said that since the fighting erupted more than a week ago, 29 civilians have been killed and 225 wounded.
On Tuesday Taliban fighters also captured Shir Khan Bandar, Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan, in one of their most significant gains in recent months.
The Taliban has released videos showing them in possession of US-made humvees and Afghan police and military equipment after seizing control of multiple districts.
Since early May, the Taliban has launched several bloody offensives targeting government forces across the rugged countryside and says it has seized nearly 90 of the country’s more than 400 districts.
However, many of the armed group’s claims are disputed by the government and difficult to independently verify.
In response to the recent increases in fighting and the Taliban’s concerted efforts to take as much territory as possible, the Afghan government has started to arm local residents across the country to join in the fight against the Taliban.
Khan Agha Rezayee, an MP from Kabul who has been in contact with the people of Kunduz and the northern provinces, is supportive of these efforts, especially as cities like Kunduz continue to come under fire.
Rezayee said the recent establishment of these forces helped defend Kunduz.
“If it was not for these uprisings, the city of Kunduz would have fallen a long time ago,” he said.
He added these forces, which could number as high as 30,000 people across the north of the country, were essential to securing the nation.
“The security forces cannot be in every village all the time, but the Taliban want to be in every corner of the country, so arming the people to protect their own lands is an important step in re-securing the county,” Rezayee said.
May was the deadline for the US forces to withdraw from Afghanistan as part of an agreement between the Taliban and the US under former President Donald Trump signed in the Qatari capital, Doha, in February 2020.
Trump’s successor President Joe Biden extended the deadline to September 11, the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan following the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, by al-Qaeda.
Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet the September 11 deadline announced by President Biden to end America’s longest war.
Amid the rising violence, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Washington last week to meet with Biden, who pledged US support to Afghanistan but said Afghans must decide their own future.
Ghani acknowledged the escalating Taliban violence but said the country’s security forces were retaking districts from rebel control. “There have been reverses. We acknowledge it. But the key now is stabilisation and ensuring that the defence of the republic is all-sided,” Ghani said.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that the armed group has the “right to react” if the US keeps troops in Afghanistan after September 11.
“If they stay here, then I think it is a kind of continuation of the occupation. They have violated and we fully have the right to react,” Shaheen said.
The February deal also called for peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan leadership but it has remain deadlocked in Qatar.
An estimated 241,000 people have died as a direct result of the war since the US invasion, according to the most recent figures from Brown University’s Costs of War.
Ali M Latifi contributed to the report from Kabul