Fighting intensified around the Afghan city of Ghazni on Monday, as Taliban fighters threatened to seize a second provincial capital after briefly occupying Kunduz in the north last month.
The clashes around Ghazni, some 80 miles southwest of Kabul, underlined the worsening security situation across Afghanistan, where government soldiers and police are struggling to cope with a string of Taliban gains in the aftermath of the withdrawal of most NATO forces last year.
Monday's violence followed days of sporadic fighting near Ghazni and prompted most shops, schools and universities there to close.
Many residents attempted to flee to Kabul, the capital, or nearby districts, adding to a growing number of internally displaced people in Afghanistan.
Government officials said they still had the upper hand against the Taliban insurgency. "Hundreds of Taliban attacked from two directions, and the fighting is still on some 7 kilometers away from the provincial capital," said Ghazni's Deputy Gov. Mohammad Ali Ahmadi. "The Taliban planned to attack and seize the capital, but we were on the alert and repelled them."
The Taliban, which seeks to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore its government 14 years after being removed from power after the U.S. invasion, said it had blocked the highway from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar.
Taliban fighters warned motorists to avoid the key corridor linking the capital to the south, which was rebuilt with the help of Western aid. There was no independent confirmation of their claim to have blocked the route.
Earlier on Monday, a local U.N. staffer was shot and killed by two gunmen on a motorbike as she was on her way to work in Kandahar. "She was fatally wounded and later died in hospital," said Mujib ur Rahman, a U.N. press officer in Kandahar.
On Sunday, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of foreign troops during Sunday morning rush hour in Kabul, wounding at least three civilians.
Since the withdrawal of international troops from most combat operations at the end of last year, the brunt of fighting has been borne by Afghan forces.
Any hopes of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban were dealt a blow earlier this year, when a power struggle broke out after confirmation that the movement's founder, Mullah Omar, died two years earlier.
Under new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban have mounted a wave of attacks in Kabul and beyond, resulting in the temporary seizure of Kunduz in a carefully orchestrated offensive.
Though government forces later retook the city, it was a stark warning of how far the Taliban has extended its reach into regions once thought secure, stretching the Afghan military and piling pressure on President Ashraf Ghani's fragile national unity government.
According to the latest U.N. data, the threat level in six of the country's 13 provinces are now rated high or extreme — the most since 2001.
The worsening violence has caused alarm in Washington, where President Barack Obama appears to be shifting away from his earlier decision to cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to a small U.S. Embassy–based force after 2016.
Al Jazeera and Reuters