Afghanistan launches offensive to retake Kunduz from Taliban

Fighters said to be getting closer to airport on city’s outskirts, where security forces have stationed themselves

The U.S. military carried out air strikes on Kunduz on Tuesday and President Ashraf Ghani launched a counter-offensive to retake the city, a day after Taliban fighters captured the strategic northern hub.

Ghani said in a televised address that his security forces are “retaking government buildings ... and reinforcements, including special forces and commandos are either there or on their way there.”

“The enemy has sustained heavy casualties,” said Ghani, who who assumed power a year ago on Tuesday. He urged his nation to trust Afghan troops and not give in to “fear and terror.”

However, media outlets reported that Afghan security forces had retreated to an outlying airport, leaving the Taliban in control of the city.

As Taliban fighters reportedly advanced toward the airport in an effort to gain control of it,  the Defense Ministry said Tuesday that government forces had retaken some parts of the city, including a newly built police headquarters and a city prison. 

Earlier, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted a triumphant picture on Twitter purportedly showing fighters raising the group's trademark white flag at a roundabout in the city center. Marauding fighters stormed a local jail, freeing hundreds of prisoners including some Taliban commanders, officials said.

Officials also said the Taliban overran the governor's compound and the police headquarters and had stolen police vehicles. The office of the National Directorate of Security, the country's main intelligence agency, was set on fire and a 200-bed government hospital was also captured. 

Taliban gunmen were seen patrolling city streets, setting up checkpoints, searching for government loyalists and sealing off exit routes for anyone who wished to escape. In Kabul, the National Security Council was meeting to discuss the development. The number of dead and wounded in the fighting was unclear.

Wahidullah Mayar, the spokesman for the Public Health Ministry said on his Twitter account that Kunduz hospitals received “172 wounded patients and 16 dead bodies so far.”

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said its trauma center in Kunduz received 129 wounded since early Monday morning, including 20 women and 39 children. Among them, nine had died, said Kate Stegeman, a MSF field communications manager.

“From this morning, the Taliban have been setting up checkpoints in and around the city, looking for the government employees,” one resident said. “Yesterday it was possible for people to get out of the city, but today it is too late because all roads are under the Taliban control.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. military carried out at least one air strike on Tuesday “in order to eliminate a threat to the force,” said U.S. Col. Brian Tribus. However, neither the U.S. nor NATO troops are believed to have an operational presence in the region, though the German military control a major base in the nearby city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Monday's multi-pronged assault on Kunduz took the Afghan authorities and military officials by surprise. 

The fall of the city of 300,000 inhabitants — the first urban area taken by the Taliban since the 2001 U.S. invasion ousted their regime — was also a major setback to Ghani, who has staked his presidency on bringing peace to Afghanistan and seeking to draw the Taliban to peace talks. 

Kunduz is one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Afghanistan, and the surrounding province, also called Kunduz, is one of the country's chief breadbaskets and has rich mining assets. It lies on a strategic crossroads connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan, China and Central Asia. 

The Taliban have had a heavy presence in Kunduz since launching their annualsummer offensive with an assault on the city in April. That marked the start of a campaign across the north, with attacks reported in recent days in neighboring Takhar province, and intermittent attacks on districts around Kunduz city. Officials say the Taliban have allied with other insurgent groups to boost numbers and fire power.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Al Jazeera's Qais Azimy contributed to this report from Baghlan, Afghanistan.

Slideshow: The Taliban in Kunduz

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