Taleban surrounds Afghan city as commandos launch counterattack

Smoke rising from houses amid fighting between Afghan forces and Taleban fighters in Qala-i-Naw on July 7.
Smoke rising from houses amid fighting between Afghan forces and Taleban fighters in Qala-i-Naw on July 7.PHOTO: AFP

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN (AFP) - Taleban fighters on motorbikes roamed an Afghan provincial capital on Thursday (July 8) after a day of heavy fighting that saw them storm the city in their most brazen assault since the United States stepped up its troop withdrawal.

The government flew in hundreds of commandos to Qala-i-Naw, the first provincial capital to face an all-out assault by the Taleban since May 1, when the insurgents launched a blistering campaign to capture new territory.

With the US troop pullout "90 per cent complete", according to the Pentagon, fears are mounting that Afghan forces will be stretched without the vital air support of the US military.

Residents in Qala-i-Naw, in Badghis province, had either fled the city or stayed indoors on Thursday after more than 24 hours of intense fighting that saw the Afghan air force launch strikes on Taleban positions.

"The Taleban (fighters) are still in the city," resident Aziz Tawakoli told Agence France-Presse. "You can see them going up and down the streets on their motorcycles."

He said many of the city's 75,000 people had fled their homes - either to neighbouring districts or to Herat.

"The shops are closed and there is hardly anyone on the streets," said Mr Tawakoli, adding that helicopters and planes had bombed Taleban targets through the night.

Badghis provincial council member Zia Gul Habibi said the Taleban suffered casualties, but also surrounded the city.

"All districts are under their control... People are really in fear," she said. "All shops and government institutions are closed. There are still reports of sporadic fighting."

Ms Parisila Herawai, a rights activist in the city, expressed concern for the safety of women in particular.

"It is an emergency situation for all women, especially activists," she told AFP. "If the Taleban plans to remain in the city, we will not be able to work."

On Wednesday, the Taleban briefly seized the police headquarters and the local office of the country's spy agency but was later pushed back.

As news of the assault spread, social media was flooded with videos of clashes - with some showing armed Taleban fighters on motorbikes entering the city, as onlookers cheered.

Local officials said some security officers had surrendered to the Taleban, and the insurgents opened the gates of the city jail, freeing hundreds of prisoners.

Most had since been recaptured, officials said.

Overnight, the Defence Ministry rushed hundreds of commandos to the city to launch a "large-scale operation", spokesman Fawad Aman said on Twitter.

The attack on Qala-i-Naw comes as the Taleban carries out a blistering campaign across the country but mostly in the north. It has captured dozens of districts since early May.

The fighting appeared to be spreading in neighbouring Herat province where officials acknowledged losing two districts to the insurgents.

Rights group Human Rights Watch said the insurgents were forcing people from their houses in northern areas that they have captured.

"The Taleban's retaliatory attacks against civilians deemed to have supported the government are an ominous warning about the risk of future atrocities," said Human Rights Watch associate director Patricia Gossman.

"The Taleban leadership has the power to stop these abuses by its forces but hasn't shown that it is willing to do so," she said.