Fighting rages in centre of major Afghan city Kunduz

Kunduz (Afghanistan) (AFP) –


Afghan forces and the Taliban were fighting fiercely Sunday in the centre of Kunduz, officials and residents said, after the insurgents captured two other provincial capitals in the last 48 hours.

The fall of the northern city would be a major blow for the central government, which has largely abandoned fighting in the countryside to defend urban centres against Taliban attacks.

"Fierce street-to-street fighting is ongoing in different parts of the city," Amruddin Wali, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, told AFP.

"Some security forces have retreated towards the airport.

The Taliban have taken two provincial capitals since Friday, but Kunduz would be the most significant to fall since the insurgents launched an offensive in May as foreign forces began the final stages of their withdrawal.

On Friday the Taliban seized their first provincial capital, Zaranj in Nimroz, and followed it up a day later by taking Sheberghan in Jawzjan.

"The Taliban have reached the main square of the city. Aircraft are bombing them," said Abdul Aziz, a Kunduz resident reached by phone.

"There is total chaos."

Fighting was also reported on the outskirts of Herat, in the west, and Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.

The pace of Taliban advances has caught government forces flatfooted, but they had some respite late Saturday after US warplanes bombed Taliban positions in Sheberghan, the Jawzjan province capital seized earlier in the day.

"US forces have conducted several airstrikes in defence of our Afghan partners in recent days," Major Nicole Ferrara, a Central Command spokesperson, told AFP in Washington.

Sheberghan is the stronghold of notorious Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose militiamen and government forces were reported to have retreated to the airport.

Dostum has overseen one of the largest militias in the north and garnered a fearsome reputation fighting the Taliban in the 1990s -- along with accusations his forces massacred thousands of insurgent prisoners of war.

Any retreat of his fighters would dent the government's recent hopes that militia groups could help bolster the country's overstretched military.

On Friday, Zaranj city in Nimroz fell "without a fight", according to its deputy governor, becoming the first provincial capital to be taken.

The government has so far not commented on the fall of the provincial capitals, other than saying they would soon be retaken.

That has been a familiar response to most Taliban gains of recent weeks, although government forces have largely failed to make good on promises to retake dozens of districts and border posts.

The withdrawal of foreign forces is due to be complete at the end of this month, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States that sparked the invasion which toppled the Taliban.