KABUL • Heavy fighting raged inside the key northern Afghan city of Kunduz for a third day yesterday as government forces, backed by US air strikes, battled Taleban insurgents who had scored one of their boldest successes in 14 years of war.
The militants had slowly infiltrated Kunduz during the recent Eid festival, launching a Trojan horse attack that enabled them to capture the city within hours.
It was Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's biggest setback since taking office a year ago and the worst attack since the bulk of foreign troops left at the end of last year.
Kunduz was the last major city to fall when US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taleban government in late 2001, weeks after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States that were planned by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden while he was in hiding in Afghanistan.
It also became the first major city to be retaken by the Islamist insurgents since then.
Around 5,000 Afghan troops massed at Kunduz airport early yesterday after fighting there raged late into the night, an Afghan security official said, and Taleban fighters were driven back with the help of a US air strike.
A Taleban commander acknowledged that his fighters had failed to hold the airport but said the Islamist group's forces were still in control of the city.
"We actually wanted to capture the airport and organised a big attack last night," said a Taleban commander close to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the militants' new leader. "We could not seize the airport but captured some of its surroundings."
However, the morale of Afghan troops was flagging after two days of continuous fighting there, a district official said. "We still have enough forces to take on the Taleban, but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight," said Mr Mohammad Zahir Niazi, chief of Chardara, a district in Kunduz.
Hundreds of Afghan security forces sent to reinforce weary colleagues were stuck in neighbouring Baghlan province after Taleban fighters buried landmines and set booby traps on the roads, a senior Afghan security official said.
"The Taleban have laid landmines and booby traps around Kunduz, slowing the movement of convoys of Afghan army reinforcements driving to the city," a security official said. "The forces are fighting their way in to make it to Kunduz."
In the city, Mr Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the police chief in Kunduz, said Afghan security forces had regained control of the police headquarters in Kunduz late on Tuesday night.
"Hundreds of Taleban are killed and their dead bodies are on streets... Right now a heavy fight is going on inside the city," Mr Hussaini told Reuters by telephone.
Afghanistan's intelligence agency said in a statement issued late on Tuesday that an air strike had killed Mawlawi Salam, the Taleban's shadow governor for Kunduz province, and 15 others on the outskirts of the airport. That could not be independently verified and a Taleban source denied the reports of Salam's death.
Nato special forces have reached Kunduz to bolster the Afghan troops, the military coalition said yesterday. "Coalition special forces are on the ground in Kunduz advising their Afghan counterparts," a Nato spokesman said. The forces comprised US, British and German troops, a Western military source said on condition of anonymity, without specifying the number.
Nato said US forces had also carried out three air strikes since Tuesday - two on the outskirts of Kunduz and one near the city's airport.
Amid the mayhem, Afghan lawmakers called on President Ghani to resign yesterday over his government's "shameful" handling of the battle for Kunduz. "It is shameful how they (the government) have dealt with the situation in Kunduz," said Mr Iqbal Safi, a Member of Parliament from Kapisa province.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE