KUNDUZ (Afghanistan) • Afghan soldiers recaptured the centre of the strategic northern city of Kunduz yesterday after fierce clashes with Taleban militants, three days after losing the provincial capital in a humbling defeat for Kabul and its United States allies.
But fighting continued in other parts of the city, whose brief capture represented a major victory for the insurgents and raised questions over whether Nato-trained Afghan forces were ready to go it alone now that most foreign combat troops have left.
"Afghanistan's flag is now seen in the main intersection where Taleban had hoisted their white flag on Monday," Mr Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, Kunduz's police spokesman, said by phone from the city's police headquarters. "Taleban suffered heavy casualties and their bodies are everywhere in the city. Kunduz is now under the control of Afghan forces."
Smoke was billowing from buildings on the city's outskirts yesterday afternoon. "The Taleban are still resisting in the city," resident Wali Mohammed said. But Mr Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said the Taleban had left Kunduz city and a clearance operation was underway.
The Taleban sent mixed messages concerning their progress yesterday, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid insisting that militant forces were holding their ground.
But an Afghan Taleban commander who spoke to Agence France- Presse from an undisclosed location said that Taleban fighters were conducting a strategic retreat from Kunduz. "The Taleban have almost vacated the main parts of the city but let me make it clear that we have proved that we can take control of any other city whenever we want," he said.
A ministry statement said 150 Taleban had been killed and 90 wounded in the overnight offensive. At least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in the fighting as of Wednesday, according to a tweet from health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar. He also said hospitals in Kunduz had treated about 340 injured people.
Terrified residents said there was heavy fighting overnight as the Afghan forces moved in.
"There were very heavy air strikes during the night. Those strikes prompted the Taleban to escape," Kunduz resident Abdul Qadir Anwari said yesterday morning. "Right now, Afghan security forces are on the streets and fighting with the Taleban in some areas outside the city. Shops are still closed and people aren't leaving their houses."
While Afghan forces celebrated, some warned the Taleban's retreat could be temporary, especially because the insurgents looted banks and seized military equipment during their three-day occupation.
"There are huge amounts of cash floating around, weapons and ammunition," said Mr Ted Callahan, a Western security analyst.
"The Taleban know that they don't have the power to retain control of a big city like Kunduz," Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told Agence France- Presse. "But their takeover, however temporary, shows they are a force to reckon with before any future peace negotiations."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG