By Sardar Razmal and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A Taliban suicide bomber struck a main square in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz where Afghan forces had gathered to defend the city from falling to the Taliban, killing at least 10 soldiers and civilians, Afghan officials said on Saturday.
It followed a major attack Taliban fighters had launched on Kunduz in the early hours of the morning, setting off gun battles and air strikes throughout Saturday in a bid to gain control of the city located on a key highway providing easy access to much of northern border provinces.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks even as leaders of the insurgent group were holding talks with U.S. negotiators to finalise a deal with for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
The attacks forced the Afghan troops to rush in reinforcements to prevent the insurgents from gaining control of the city.
They also prompted the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, along with top Afghan security officials and ministers to arrive in Kunduz to oversee the counteroffensive operations.
Miller’s visit underlines Washington’s continuing commitment to Afghan forces even as it negotiates a historic deal with the Taliban to end the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan.
At least three civilians were killed in the battles and 41 wounded were taken to hospitals, said Ehsanullah Fazli, head of the public health department in Kunduz city.
Electricity and most telephone services were cut, and residents took shelter in their houses, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of the fighting.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a statement said movement constraints for humanitarian personnel and disruption of phone lines were posing a challenge to assessing the situation in Kunduz as exit routes from the city remain contested.
“Electricity was interrupted last night (Friday) and any further cuts this evening (Saturday) may create problems for residents who rely on pumped wells for their water needs,” OCHA stated.
Government officials in Kunduz and Kabul said the Taliban were seeking shelter inside homes and some of the fighters had entered the main hospital in the city.
“The city is completely empty, shops are locked, people aren’t moving, and light and heavy weapons can be heard in several parts of the city,” said local resident Khaluddin, who like many Afghans goes by a single name.
The interior ministry said at least 36 Taliban insurgents were killed in ground and air operations in three areas of Kunduz city and clearance operations were underway.
An air strike in Zakhil area killed 20 Taliban fighters including two commanders, Afghan security officials said. Taliban spokesmen were not immediately available to confirm the casualty figures.
“Security forces are repelling the Taliban attack on some parts of Kunduz city. Their top priority is to protect the civilians,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“As always the Taliban have taken positions in civilian areas,” he said in a tweet.
The fighting in Kunduz, which the Taliban came close to capturing twice in recent years, came as expectations have grown that U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha were close to securing an agreement that would see a timetable for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat leading the talks for Washington, is expected in Kabul in the coming days to outline the terms of a settlement to the Afghan president ahead of meetings with NATO partners.
Taliban officials said talks had resumed on Saturday and could continue until Sunday.
A U.S.-Taliban accord would not in itself end the fighting in Afghanistan, but it would open the way for talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul for a wider peace agreement.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States had good negotiations going on with the Taliban but had not yet reached a deal with them on U.S. troops withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Sources in the Taliban said Trump’s statement that the United States will continue to maintain a force in Afghanistan even after a deal was reached was unacceptable to them as they are demanding a complete pull-out of foreign forces.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are now in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
Despite the peace talks, fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, who are backed by U.S. air power, has not subsided.
More than 1,500 civilians were killed or injured last month, according to the United Nations.
An American service member was killed in combat operations in Afghanistan on Thursday, the U.S. military said, the third to be killed here in the past eight days.
(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi, Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Clelia Oziel)