Fragile peace returns to city of Kunduz

Residents receiving food distributed by police in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Sunday. Afghan security forces said yesterday they had reclaimed most of the city from the Taleban, allowing residents to leave their homes to buy food for the firs
Residents receiving food distributed by police in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Sunday. Afghan security forces said yesterday they had reclaimed most of the city from the Taleban, allowing residents to leave their homes to buy food for the first time in eight days.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

KABUL • Police and residents said Afghan government forces had regained control of most of the besieged city of Kunduz yesterday, and some shops in the centre of the provincial capital opened for the first time since it fell to Taleban fighters a week ago.

Residents said it was the first time in eight days that they had not heard gunbattles and were able to leave their homes to buy food and take stock of the damage done.

Soldiers were conducting house-to-house searches as they continued to push Islamist insurgents out of areas that had witnessed fierce fighting, with control of pockets of the city swinging several times between the Taleban and Afghan army.

"The centre of the city is normal," said Mr Abdul Ghafoor, a Kunduz resident, but added it would still take time to recover. "The city smells so bad with dead bodies still on the pavements and in the sewage. The local government must do something."

Battles have raged around Kunduz, a strategic city of 300,000, as government forces, backed by United States air strikes, sought to drive out Taleban militants, who seized the city a week ago in one of their biggest victories in the 14-year insurgency.

The US said it was investigating whether its military was responsible for an airstrike that killed 22 people in an Afghan hospital run by aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, last Saturday.

Pressure mounted on Washington yesterday to come clean over the US airstrike, an incident the Pentagon chief said was "confused and complicated" but which the medical charity branded a war crime. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter expressed sadness over the "tragic loss of life" but warned that the investigation will not be swift. "The situation there is confused and complicated, so it may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts, and we will be full and transparent about sharing them," he told reporters ahead of a European tour.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the hospital assault was "inexcusable" and could amount to a war crime. MSF said on Sunday it has closed the trauma centre, seen as a lifeline in a war-battered region with scant medical care, and demanded an independent probe into the air raid.

The US military said it conducted an air strike "in the vicinity" of the MSF hospital as it targeted Taleban insurgents who were directly firing on US military personnel. It has not acknowledged hitting the hospital.

Any confirmation of US responsibility for the hospital deaths would deal a blow to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's policy of forging closer ties with the US. His predecessor, Mr Hamid Karzai, fell out with his backers in Washington, in part, over the number of civilians killed by US strikes.

While the Afghan government has claimed to have regained control of the city before, fighting continued, but weary residents were hopeful that the worst of the violence may now be over.

"It is going to take a long time for the city to return to normality again," said a Kunduz resident. "People are still very scared to come out."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'Fragile peace returns to city of Kunduz'. Print Edition | Subscribe