KABUL (AFP) - The Taleban said Tuesday they had withdrawn from Kunduz, two weeks after the group's stunning capture of the northern Afghan city that marked its biggest military victory in 14 years of war.
The tactical retreat after days of pitched street battles comes as the Taleban makes an unprecedented push to seize big cities across multiple provinces.
The announcement comes long after the government claimed to have recaptured Kunduz, where insurgents burned down government buildings, gunned down opponents and freed hundreds of prisoners.
The Taleban told their fighters to pull out of the city in order to save ammunition and protect the lives of civilians, the group said on its website.
"The (Taleban) ordered its mujahideen to withdraw from the main square, markets and government buildings to the outlying rural areas... in order to reinforce their defence lines and reserve their strength for effective future operations," it said.
Afghan soldiers, backed by Nato special forces, have been combing the city to flush out pockets of insurgents hiding in civilian homes.
As fighting abates, local residents are slowly emerging from their homes after days of crippling food, water and electricity shortages.
The fall of Kunduz on Sept 28 was a stinging blow to Western-trained Afghan forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since the end of Nato's combat mission in December.
As fighting spreads in neighbouring provinces such as Badakhshan and Takhar, concerns are mounting that the city's seizure was merely the opening gambit in a new, bolder strategy to tighten the insurgency's grip across Afghanistan.
Around 2,000 Taleban insurgents threatened to storm Ghazni on Monday, triggering fierce clashes around the outskirts of the southeastern city.
Afghan forces repelled the brazen assault, but it rang security alarm bells as the largely rural insurgency threatens large urban centres for the first time in 14 years.
Last week, the militants attempted to overrun Maimana, the capital of northern Faryab province, though they were pushed back by Afghan forces with the aid of pro-government militias.
"With this kind of guerrilla fighting focused around big cities, the Taleban are exerting enormous pressure on overstretched Afghan forces," Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.
"The Taleban know they can't control a city for long, but capturing one, even momentarily, is a huge propaganda win."
Security officials said the militants had slowly infiltrated Kunduz during the recent Eid festival, launching a Trojan Horse attack that enabled them to capture it within hours.
The lightning capture of the city sent thousands of panicked residents fleeing as the Taleban set up camp in civilian homes and conducting door-to-door searches for Afghan soldiers and government staff.
Amnesty International condemned the Taleban's "reign of terror", citing civilian testimonies of mass murder and gang rapes by militant death squads.
Health officials say that more than 60 civilians have been killed and around 400 wounded in the fighting, but observers estimate that the real toll is much higher.