Afghan army launches offensive to retake Kunduz city from Taleban

Afghan soldiers keep watch during a battle in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan on Sept 28, 2015.
Afghan soldiers keep watch during a battle in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan on Sept 28, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AFP) - The Afghan army on Tuesday launched a counter-offensive to retake Kunduz from the Taleban, a day after insurgents overran the strategic northern city.

"Afghan army reinforcements began the operation to recapture Kunduz city at 8:00 am (0330 GMT) today," the defence ministry said in a statement. "The police headquarters and city prison have been retaken."

U.S. military planes also hit Taleban positions on the outskirts of the fallen northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Tuesday, a NATO spokesman said. The attack at about 9 a.m. (0400 GMT) marked the first U.S. air strike to defend the city.

"U.S. forces conducted an air strike in Kunduz today to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces operating in the vicinity of Kunduz," said Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the NATO-led coalition. He did not elaborate on how many coalition forces troops were in the area.

The US and the Afghan army are trying to take back Kunduz, a day after Taleban insurgents overran the strategic northern city in their biggest victory since being ousted from power in 2001.

Afghan security forces had retreated to the outlying airport, leaving the Taleban effectively in control of Kunduz after they stormed the city on Monday, capturing government buildings and freeing hundreds of prisoners.

The stunning fall of the provincial capital, which has sent panicked residents fleeing, has dealt a major blow to Afghanistan's NATO-trained security forces and spotlighted the insurgency's potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds.

Deputy Interior Minister Ayoub Salangi vowed to investigate how the Taleban managed to seize a major urban centre for the first time in 14 years.

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted a triumphant picture on Twitter purportedly showing fighters raising the group's trademark white flag at a roundabout in the city centre.

Marauding insurgents stormed the local jail, freeing hundreds of prisoners including some Taleban commanders, officials said.

Kunduz was swarming with Taleban fighters racing stolen police vehicles, who officials said overran the governor's compound and the police headquarters.

The Taleban's incursion into Kunduz, barely nine months after the NATO combat mission concluded, raises troubling questions over the capacity of Afghan forces as they battle militants largely on their own. NATO officially ended its combat role in Afghanistan last year. A scaled-down coalition presence now mostly trains and advises Afghan forces, although US drones still target militant leaders and a U.S. counter-terror force remains.

The fall of the city coincides with the first anniversary of President Ashraf Ghani's national unity government coming to power, as it struggles to rein in the ascendant insurgency.

It will undoubtedly boost the image of new Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour within insurgent ranks as he seeks to draw attention away from internal rifts over his leadership.

Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan and is a major transport hub for the north of the country, could offer the Taleban a critical new base of operations beyond their traditional southern strongholds.