KUNDUZ (Afghanistan) • The Taleban has seized partial control of a major Afghan city - the first time the militants have done so since the United States-led invasion in 2001.
The Islamist group was driven out of cities when it was ousted from power by a Nato coalition in 2001 but has maintained control over parts of the countryside. Kunduz, in the north-east, is the country's fifth-largest city, located about 250km north of the capital, Kabul.
"The Taleban has taken over our neighbourhood, which is part of Kunduz city. I can see their fighters all around," an Agence France- Presse journalist in the city said yesterday.
A senior tribal elder said the militants had taken control of one of the city's districts, while a second elder said his house was now around 100m from their forward line.
"The Taleban launched a major offensive from different sides on Kunduz city, with the major push coming from the north, beginning at 3am last night," said the elder, who requested anonymity. "The Taleban are less than 1km from the city centre," he said, adding they had also seized a 200-bed hospital.
But government officials denied the reports, and said they are battling the insurgents on the city's outskirts. "The Taleban, in the early morning, had managed to enter one neighbourhood on the edge of Kunduz city, but they have been pushed back with heavy casualties. Our forces are pursuing them," said the province's police spokesman, Mr Sayed Sarwar Hussaini.
A statement issued by the Ministry of Defence said: "Thirty-five enemy fighters have been killed. The Afghan security forces assure the people that they have inflicted a heavy blow on the enemy, and will provide security to all people of Kunduz province."
Afghanistan's Nato-trained police and army personnel have been fighting the militants this year without the front-line help of foreign forces, which ended their combat mission in December last year.