In 2001, Kunduz was the site of the Taliban’s “last stand” against the U.S.-led military coalition, which removed the group from power in Afghanistan. Afghan forces have been fighting largely alone since U.S. and NATO concluded their combat mission at the end of last year, shifting to a training and advising capacity. Local security forces have held their ground and repulsed a number of major attacks while taking their heaviest casualties since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Afghan officials say that in recent weeks the Taliban have joined forces across northern Afghanistan with other regional insurgent groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as they have expanded from their heartland in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban have seized a number of rural districts in the country, even if only temporarily, but Kunduz is their first major advance into an urban area.
Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for provincial police chief in Kunduz, told The Associated Press that the insurgents overran more than half the city after launching coordinated early morning attacks. They took a hospital, courthouse and other government buildings, Hussaini said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the target of the assault was the city's main prison and police headquarters. Security forces in Kunduz, which managed to fend off a major Taliban advance earlier this year, had intelligence that another attack was being planned, Sediqqi said.
“Security forces in Kunduz were prepared for an attack, but not one of this size, and not one that was coordinated in 10 different locations at the same time,” he said. “Right now intensive gun battles are going on inside the city. Part of the city is under the control of the Taliban, including the markets, shops and a number of government buildings.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility on twitter for the attack, saying the fighters were entering hospitals around the city hunting for wounded government troops. He advised residents to remain indoors.
Kunduz, capital of the province of the same name, is one of Afghanistan's wealthiest cities. The province is also considered the breadbasket of the country, as a major producer of grain and other food.
The Taliban launched their spring offensive with a major attack on Kunduz in April. They were pushed back by Afghan security forces but are believed to have regrouped and allied with other insurgents.
Hundreds of gunmen stormed the city at about 3 a.m. from several directions, officials said. Kunduz Governor Omar Safi was not in the city at the time, they said. The United Nation's Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said that all its staff had been evacuated from its Kunduz office.
Abdul Wadood Wahidi, spokesman for the Kunduz governor, said earlier that three police officers had been wounded and ”more than 20 bodies of Taliban fighters are on the battlefield.”
He said reinforcements from neighboring provinces had already arrived in Kunduz city, with more on the way from other cities, including the capital, Kabul, and Mazar-i-Sharif.
Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, said city residents were “greatly concerned” about the situation. “The Taliban are trying to take control of Kunduz city, and this is why they have launched their attacks from different directions using their full power,” he said.
The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders says it has treated more than 100 wounded people.
Guilhem Molinie, the group's Afghanistan country representative, says the hospital added 18 beds, raising its total capacity to 110, to cope with “the unprecedented level of admissions.”
The Afghan government has described the situation in Kunduz as “fluid” and says President Ashraf Ghani is in contact with commanders there.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press