GHAZNI (Afghanistan) • Heavily armed Taleban fighters attacked Ghazni city in central Afghanistan early yesterday, burning police checkpoints, shelling houses and business areas, and seizing control of parts of the city before being beaten back, officials said.
United States helicopters and drone aircraft provided support to government forces. But as smoke rose across the city and witnesses reported bodies lying in the streets, it was unclear how much of Ghazni was under government control.
The attack on a strategic city straddling the main route between the capital Kabul and southern Afghanistan demonstrated the Taleban's strength, underscoring how volatile the security situation remains less than three months before parliamentary elections in October.
The defence ministry in Kabul said the attackers had been driven off, but were still present in one area of the city and had occupied civilian houses, from where they were still keeping up occasional fire on security forces clearing the area.
It said about 150 attackers had been killed or wounded, but gave no estimate of casualties for civilians or security forces.
A statement from the US military headquarters in Kabul said fighting had ceased by 8am local time (11.30am Singapore time) and that Afghan forces had held their ground and maintained control of all government centres.
"US forces responded with close-air support and conducted one strike. In addition, US aircraft conducted a show of presence," a spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement.
Officials said clashes between security forces and the Taleban started at around 2am, forcing the closure of the main highway linking Ghazni to Kabul.
"The Taleban are dropping missiles near residential and commercial areas.
"There has not been a single minute of silence for the last eight hours," said a senior government official in Ghazni early yesterday.
Ghazni police chief Farid Ahmad Mashal said the Taleban seized several parts of the city, which has been under threat for months, with heavy fighting in surrounding districts.
As helicopters circled overhead in the early morning, a second government official said it was too dangerous for people to leave their homes and he had no immediate details on casualties.
"It is not possible to get out of our homes to help the injured or collect bodies," he said.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement saying multiple attacks were launched overnight in Ghazni.
Dozens of Afghan soldiers and police had been killed and large quantities of weapons and equipment had been seized, he said.
The US forces' spokesman said initial reports indicated minimal casualties among Afghan security forces.
"This is yet another failed Taleban attempt to seize terrain, which will result in yet another eye-catching, but strategically inconsequential, headline," he said.