Afghan government forces pushed overnight into the strategic northern city of Kunduz that was captured by the Taliban earlier this week, forcing the insurgents to retreat amid heavy street battles that were still underway Thursday.
But despite prompt claims from officials that much of the city had been liberated, by midday, residents remaining inside Kunduz and hunkering down in their homes said they could still hear explosions and shootings outside.
The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz on Monday was a major setback for Afghan forces, which have struggled to combat insurgents with limited aid from the U.S. and NATO troops. The international coalitions' role officially shifted to training and support after all NATO combat forces withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of last year.
Nonetheless, the U.S. military is still actively involved in the fight in Kunduz. U.S. Special Forces accompanied and later fought alongside Afghan troops on Thursday to wrest back control of the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since 2001.
A U.S. military spokesman said the American troops had been serving as advisers, but were forced to defend themselves while travelling with Afghan forces on their offensive to retake Kunduz. “U.S. Special Forces advisers, while advising and assisting elements of the Afghan Special Security Forces, encountered an insurgent threat in Kunduz city (on) Oct. 1,” said Col. Brian Tribus.
He added that the Americans “returned fire in self-defense to eliminate the threat.” He did not say how many coalition advisers participated in the battle.
Roughly 6,500 U.S. troops serve in the residual Resolute Support mission to train and advise Afghan forces, and Tribus said they do not engage in combat. “However, our service members have the right to protect themselves if necessary.”
The Taliban on Thursday denied they had lost control of Kunduz and the group's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, claimed it was still in their hands, saying “the Taliban flag is still flying” over the city.
Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said the operation to take back Kunduz was launched late Wednesday, with ground forces moving from the airport — where they had massed since the city fell — over roads that had been mined by the insurgents.
Sediqqi claimed that control of Kunduz “was taken by 3.30 a.m.” on Thursday but conceded that an operation "to clear the city is ongoing" and could take some days.
He said the battle is a joint army and police operation and that roadblocks set up by the Taliban to prevent any movement had been removed. He said essential supplies, including food and medicine, would be delivered soon to the residents.
Sediqqi said around 200 Taliban fighters have been killed in the fighting so far but did not provide a figure for government casualties. Kunduz police chief Sarwar Hussaini said bodies of dead Taliban fighters lay on some of the city's streets but that the clearance operation was complicated because some Taliban fighters had hidden inside people's homes.
Residents reported street battles and gunfire in various areas of the city.
Zabihullah, who lives close to the main city square and who like many Afghans prefers to use one name, said that “intense fighting is continuing on the streets of city.”
“The situation is really critical and getting worse, and I've just heard a huge explosion from a bomb near my house, he told The Associated Press.
Another resident, Hameedullah, said that heavy clashes were underway in the Khuja Mashhad area of the city, about 200 yards north of the square. “Everyone is staying indoors, but there is still sporadic firing,” he said. “There are explosions but I can't tell if they are bombs being dropped from the planes I can hear overhead, or rockets.”
Fighting was also ongoing in the Bandr-i-Iman Sahib district in the west of Kunduz, where resident Munib Khan said the Taliban were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and were putting up a heavy fight. Khan said the fighting had taken front-stage to the “many problems inside the city,” which now has “no water, no electricity.”
It was not possible to immediately gauge how much of Kunduz was secured by the Afghan forces. The capture of the city by the Taliban had taken the government, military and intelligence agencies by surprise.
The Taliban spokesman, in remarks posted on his Twitter account, claimed that “life in Kunduz is normal” — an apparent attempt to refute government statements that Afghan forces had pushed the insurgents out from the center to the city's more far-flung neighborhoods.
Afghan troops, backed by U.S. airstrikes, had massed on the outskirts of the city and at the Kunduz airport on Wednesday in a buildup of what was expected to be a long and difficult campaign to drive out the Taliban.
President Ashraf Ghani has come under intense criticism for the fall of the city. He went on national television to reassure his people earlier this week that Kunduz would be recaptured.
But the damage to Ghani's one-year-old administration had been done. On Thursday morning, hundreds of people gathered outside the presidential palace in Kabul, calling for his resignation.
“We are not happy with this government, every day there is fighting,” said Foruzan Haydari, a 23-year-old student.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press