The Taliban has captured the city of Sheberghan, the second Afghan provincial capital to fall to the armed group in less than 24 hours, the city’s deputy governor said.
Qader Malia, the deputy governor of Sheberghan in Jawzjan province, said on Saturday that government forces and officials had retreated to the airport on the outskirts of the northern Afghan city, where they were preparing to defend themselves.
“The city has unfortunately fallen completely,” Malia told the AFP news agency. “The [government] forces and officials have retreated to the airport.”
Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis, reporting from the Afghan capital Kabul, said the situation on the ground is nuanced and fluid.
“The Taliban put out a statement saying they have taken the city of Sherbegan and therefore the province of Jawzjan. They said this happened earlier this afternoon,” Bellis said.
“The government is denying the Taliban have a taken full control of the city. The Ministry of Interior have told us they are going to launch a counter-offensive, that they are sending reinforcement, special forces and have started air strikes,” Bellis added.
Provincial councillor Bismillah Sahil said the Taliban fighters had taken over key buildings such as the governor’s office, the police headquarters and the central prison in the city.
However, the pro-government forces were still holding some areas inside the city such as the airport and an army brigade, according to Mohammad Karim Jawzjani, a parliamentarian who represents Jawzjan.
The city is home to notorious strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, who returned to Afghanistan this week only after medical treatment in Turkey.
Dostum has overseen one of the largest militias in the north, which garnered a fearsome reputation in its fight against the Taliban in the 1990s – along with accusations that his forces massacred thousands of prisoners of war.
On Saturday, Dostum held a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace.
A palace statement quoted Dostum as saying that “it is time to stand alongside” the security forces and to “stand against the enemy”.
On Friday, Afghanistan’s defence ministry had reported clearing Sheberghan of Taliban fighters, but on Saturday, local sources told Al Jazeera the provincial capital was in Taliban hands.
The Taliban has gained vast parts of rural Afghanistan since launching a series of offensives in May to coincide with the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops.
On Friday, Zaranj in Nimruz province fell to the Taliban “without a fight”, according to its deputy governor, becoming the first provincial capital to be taken by the armed group.
Social media posts suggested the Taliban was welcomed by some residents of the desert city Sheberghan. They showed captured military Humvees, luxury SUVs and pick-ups speeding through the streets, flying white Taliban flags as residents – mostly youths and young men – cheered them on.
“The Afghan security forces lost their morale due to intense propaganda by the Taliban,” a senior official from the city, who asked not to be named, told AFP. “Even before the Taliban attacks … most of the security forces put their weapons on the ground, took off their uniforms, and left their units and fled.”
The Afghan government has made no official comment yet on the fall of either city.
In a statement on Saturday, the US embassy in Afghanistan condemned the “Taliban’s violent new offensive against Afghan cities”.
“This includes the unlawful seizure of Zaranj … the attack on Sheberghan … and continuing efforts to take over Lashkar Gah in Helmand and provincial capitals elsewhere,” it said in the statement.
“These Taliban actions to forcibly impose its rule are unacceptable and contradict its claim to support a negotiated settlement in the Doha peace process. They demonstrate wanton disregard for the welfare and rights of civilians and will worsen this country’s humanitarian crisis.”
The capture of Sheberghan comes a day after the head of the Afghan government’s media information department was shot dead in Kabul in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
After a failed assassination attempt on the country’s defence minister on Tuesday, the Taliban warned it was now targeting senior administration officials in retaliation for increased air attacks.
The Taliban already controls large portions of the countryside and is now challenging government forces in other provincial capitals including Herat, near the western border with Iran, and Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
From Kunduz, activist Rasikh Maroof told AFP by phone on Saturday that fighting raged overnight on the outskirts of several parts of the city, with the Taliban apparently unable to gain significant inroads.
Government forces were “defending seriously”, he said, using air raids against Taliban mortars and heavy weapons.
The latest takeover comes as the United Nations warned that the conflict could be entering a “deadlier and more destructive phase”.
“To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties,” Deborah Lyons, the UN’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told the Security Council on Friday.
“Nonetheless, the threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue.”
Afghanistan’s UN Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai urged the Security Council to act to “prevent a catastrophic situation”.
“We’re alarmed by reports and incidents of gross human rights violation by the Taliban and their foreign terrorist associates in almost half of our country and we are extremely concerned about the safety and security of people in cities under Taliban attacks,” he said.