KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents attacked police headquarters and other government buildings in Ghazni in central Afghanistan on Sunday and were threatening to seize control of the city, with the main highway now heavily mined, local lawmakers and residents said.
U.S. aircraft conducted at least four air strikes but details of the fighting were unclear as most of the city’s telecoms masts were destroyed in fighting over recent days.
But lawmakers from Ghazni who managed to talk to some residents said Taliban were in control of much of the city after launching an initial attack in the early hours of Friday.
“Only the governor’s office, police headquarters and intelligence agency’s compound are in the hands of the government and Taliban are pushing to take them,” said Chaman Shah Ehtemadi, a lawmaker from Ghazni.
The attack on Ghazni, a strategic city on the main highway linking Kabul with Afghanistan’s south, was the most serious blow to the government since the insurgents came close to overrunning the western city of Farah in May.
Mohammad Rahim Hasanyar, a member of the provincial council, said heavy fighting was continuing in several areas of the city and Afghan forces were in defence mode.
“No one knows what the exact situation is because there is no communication service,” he said.
There was no confirmed word on casualties. Quoting a hospital official, Afghanistan’s 1TV television reported more than 90 members of the security forces and 13 civilians had been killed, with more than 100 wounded. It said there had also been heavy Taliban casualties.
With the highway heavily mined to prevent reinforcements from arriving, residents were largely blocked inside but some who managed to escape across fields on the city’s periphery said many government buildings were ablaze.
“There was burning and fire and dead bodies everywhere in the city,” said Abdul Wakil, a local resident who escaped told Reuters at a checkpoint into Kabul.
A senior security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Special Forces units had been sent to push the Taliban back from around the city but many fighters were still inside the centre after going into hiding following their initial assault in the early hours of Friday.
The official said Afghan and U.S. aircraft had carried out strikes outside the city but many fighters were in residential areas, making it difficult for security forces to rely on air support.
U.S. military headquarters in Kabul said sporadic clashes were occurring and American aircraft had conducted five strikes on Saturday and four more on Sunday.
“The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces continue to hold their ground and maintain control of all government centres,” Lt Col Martin O’Donnell, U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
The attack on Ghazni leaves the future of peace talks with the Taliban uncertain. The government had been considering a ceasefire over this month’s Eid al Adha holiday to match a similar truce during June’s Eid al Fitr holiday.
(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by James Mackenzie and Richard Borsuk)