By Ayesha Tanzeem
Taliban fighters overran large parts of Kunduz city along with the capitals of Takhar and Sar-e-Pul provinces in northern and northeastern Afghanistan Sunday after intense fighting that lasted several days.
Hundreds of families fled Kunduz, in the province of the same name, leaving everything behind. Social media videos showed people running in panic and clouds of black smoke rising in the background as parts of the city burned.
Farid, a Kunduz resident who escaped, told VOA the population has been miserable for the last two days since the Taliban attacked.
“Shops are burned, the city is closed, fighting is ongoing; there is no water and no food,” he said.
The Taliban claimed they had captured the city, but the Afghan government said it had launched a counteroffensive.
“A joint Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANSDF) operation in Kunduz City has been successfully underway, with many areas of the city recaptured and many terrorists killed and wounded.” Mirwais Stanekzai, Interior Ministry spokesman, tweeted late Sunday afternoon.
One eyewitness said the Taliban were using armored Humvees that they had captured from Afghan security forces in earlier fights.
Another eyewitness, Sayed Rahman, said the Taliban also captured the Kunduz prison. Social media videos showed inmates fleeing after the Taliban broke into the prison.
This is the third time since 2015 that the Taliban have managed to overrun Kunduz but the last two times, they were only able to hold the city for a few days.
Meanwhile, the Taliban claimed they had also taken over Taluqan, the capital of Takhar, as well as Sar-e-Pul, the capital of Sar-e-Pul province. Government sources did not confirm this claim.
Sources told VOA the Taliban were controlling large parts of Sar-e-Pul while the Afghan security forces had retreated to a military base on the outskirts of the city.
Condemning the Taliban’s “violent new offensive against several Afghan cities,” the U.S. embassy in Kabul tweeted that the militant group’s “actions to forcibly impose its rule are unacceptable” and were “not going to get them closer to the legitimacy they wish for.”
On Sunday, the U.S. Defense Department issued a statement calling on the Taliban to “suspend their offensive operations and engage in good-faith dialogue for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.”
The statement also strongly criticized the Taliban for alleged human rights violations including “forcible entry into international NGO compounds, and the use of civilians as human shields.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers from northern Kunduz and Jawzjan provinces criticized the government for ignoring their areas and said it would affect the safety of nearby provinces as well, according to local channel Tolo news.
The Taliban takeover of provincial capitals started with Zaranj in Nimruz Friday. On Saturday, Sheberghan, the capital of Jawzjan, also fell to the militants.
Last week, President Ashraf Ghani announced a new plan to deal with the Taliban offensive that had helped the militant group make sweeping territorial gains across the country since May, when international forces began leaving.
“I want to tell you that a clear plan is prepared for reaching stability in six months and the implementation of the plan has started,” Ghani said in his address to a special joint session of the Afghan parliament on Aug 2.
Meanwhile, journalist Toofan Omari, who worked with local radio Paktia Ghazh, (Voice of Paktia) was killed in an attack as he was returning to Kabul from Bagram district, his family confirmed. The radio station dedicated half of its coverage to women’s issues.
A lawyer by training, Omari was working closely with Nai Media Institute, an Afghan organization supporting free media in the country. NMI has called on the Afghan government to bring to justice the culprits responsible for the attack. So far, no group has claimed responsibility.
Omari was also working with the attorney general’s office as a prosecutor. The attack on Omari also killed another attorney and wounded a third one, according to a statement from the AG’s office.
VOA’s national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.