Locals report fear and destruction as the Taliban seizes Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city for third time in seven years.
Kabul, Afghanistan – The Taliban has captured a sixth provincial capital in Afghanistan in four days, as the group’s advances gain momentum.
The armed group’s spokesman on Monday morning sent messages to the media claiming it has overrun Aybak, the capital of the northern province of Samangan.
Samangan’s deputy provincial governor confirmed the takeover to the AFP news agency.
The Taliban is “in full control”, he said, shortly after a Taliban spokesman tweeted that all government and police installations in Aybak had been “cleared”.
The armed group said its fighters now control the provincial governor’s compound, the intelligence directorate, police headquarters and all other official buildings in the city.
Aybak is the fifth northern provincial capital to fall to the Taliban in less than a week, and the sixth overall in the country.
The fall of Samangan will put further strain on an already stretched Afghan security forces, as commandos and backup forces have been dispatched to the five other provinces whose capital have fallen – Kunduz, Takhar, Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pol, Nimruz – as well as the provinces of Herat, Kandahar and Helmand.
The group also said on Monday that they were moving in on Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan’s largest city.
Overnight on Sunday and throughout the day on Monday, reports came in from the northern districts of Balkh, Badakhshan and Panjshir provinces, with the Taliban hoping to close in on their capitals.
Unlike Jowzjan, Kunduz and Sar-e-Pol, Samangan was once known to be one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan, with a minimal Taliban presence.
However, the last three years saw a growing presence of the group in the province.
Battle for Kunduz airport
On Sunday, the Ministry of Defence claimed government forces had launched clearance operations in Kunduz, but residents speaking to Al Jazeera said the Taliban spent much of Monday trying to get closer to the airport.
According to sources on the ground, the armed group has made it within 3km (2 miles) of the airport and fighting continues in the city.
With the road from Kabul to Kunduz having been under the rebel’s control for several months, residents fear that a Taliban takeover of the airport would be a “disaster”, robbing officials and residents of a possible evacuation.
Health officials in Kunduz say they have treated dozens of injured civilians since Sunday afternoon, when the Taliban first flew its white flag from the city’s main square.
Meanwhile, residents in Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah say fighting is still raging near their capitals, which the Taliban has been trying to overrun for more than a month.
There have been unconfirmed media reports that US and government air attacks have damaged a hospital and a high school near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
The Afghan Ministry of Defence confirmed the air raids occurred, but said they targeted Taliban positions, killing 54 fighters and wounding 23. Its statement made no mention of a clinic or school being bombed.
Afghan officials have long called for additional air support, either through foreign air attacks or the procurement of their own airpower, but such tactics have proven controversial in Afghanistan, as there have been repeated reports of civilian casualties from such tactics.