The Taliban has launched its first assault on a provincial capital in Afghanistan since waging a major offensive against government forces, local officials said, causing panic among local people and prompting prisoners to break out of the city’s prison.
Fierce fighting erupted on Wednesday in the western city of Qala-e-Naw, the capital of northwestern Badghis province, after the armed group fighters captured all the surrounding districts of the province.
“The enemy has entered the city, all the districts have fallen. The fighting has started inside the city,” Badghis Governor Hessamuddin Shams told reporters in a text message.
Badghis provincial council chief Abdul Aziz Bek and council member Zia Gul Habibi confirmed that fighting between the Taliban and government forces had erupted inside the city.
“Fighting continues in different parts of the city right now,” Bek told the AFP news agency, adding that some security officials had surrendered to the Taliban during the night.
“Qala-e-Naw was in a state of disarray as security forces and people do not know what to do now,” Bek told Reuters news agency.
“More than 200 prisoners in the central prison of the Badghis broke the prison gate and escaped,” he said.
Provincial council member Habibi said the Taliban fighters were inside the police headquarters of the city and the local office of the country’s spy agency, the National Directorate of Security.
“The provincial council officials have fled to an army camp in the city. Fighting continues in the city,” she said.
Since mid-April, when US President Joe Biden announced the end to Afghanistan’s “forever war”, the Taliban has made strides throughout the country.
But its most significant gains have been in the northern half of the country, a traditional stronghold of the US-allied strongmen who helped defeat them in 2001.
The Taliban now controls roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan.
Their advances have been forcing soldiers to surrender and civilians to flee.
Shams said other districts of Badghis outside the capital were in the hands of the Taliban as security forces evacuated.
Afghan Defence Minister Bismillah Mohammadi said in a statement the war was entering a “difficult” stage and security forces were “defending Afghanistan and our compatriots with all their might and resources under all circumstances”.
The latest advancement comes days after US and NATO forces vacated their main Bagram airbase near Kabul, from where they led operations for 20 years against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies.
The areas under Taliban control, especially in the north, are increasingly strategic, running along Afghanistan’s border with Central Asian states. Last month, the group took control of Imam Sahib, a town in Kunduz province opposite Uzbekistan and gained control of a key trade route.
Earlier this week, the Taliban seized the northeastern Badakhshan province, as well as its former bastion of Kandahar.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban negotiators in Qatar have failed to make substantive progress in recent months, though the warring sides have been holding meetings in recent days.
Iran on Wednesday told Taliban and Afghan government representatives it stood ready to help end the crisis in Afghanistan, urging the country’s people and politicians to make “difficult decisions” about its future.
Hosting a meeting of Afghan government representatives and a high-level Taliban political committee, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said “committing to political solutions is the best choice”.