Taliban pull back from Kunduz as fighting flares on southern highway

Afghan security forces sit on top of a vehicle as they patrol outside of Kunduz city, October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Hamid Shalizi (Reuters)

By Hamid Shalizi KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban said they were pulling back in the northern city of Kunduz on Tuesday in order to protect civilians, but fighting continued elsewhere in the country with government troops battling to reopen the main highway south of the capital Kabul. The Islamist insurgents have mounted a wave of attacks in Kabul and beyond since the withdrawal of most foreign troops last year, culminating in the seizure of Kunduz in a carefully orchestrated offensive at the end of last month. Though the Taliban only controlled the city for three days, fighting between the militants and Afghan security forces continued for two weeks, driving tens of thousands of residents to seek safety in neighboring provinces. As government forces have slowly regained control in Kunduz, fighting has flared in Ghazni, a provincial city that lies south of Kabul on Highway One, the main link between the capital and the major southern city of Kandahar. Security forces beat off an attack by hundreds of Taliban in Ghazni on Monday, but clashes continued in nearby villages and the highway was blocked, leaving many desperate people trapped in the open by the fighting. "There are hundreds of cars, buses stuck in the Nawrak area of Zabul since yesterday morning," said Sayed Abdullah, a traveler speaking by telephone from the area. "We beg the government and the Taliban to let us go either back to Kandahar or Ghazni. There are many women and children," he said. Afghan security forces have struggled to contain the insurgency, which has shattered hopes of a smooth transition after NATO pulled out of most combat operations last year and piled growing pressure on President Ashraf Ghani. SEIZE THE CITY The Taliban, seeking to re-establish their hardline Islamist rule after they were toppled by U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, said the decision to move out of Kunduz city was not a sign of defeat. "We assure our people and the world that we are able to seize the city," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement. "Pulling back from Kunduz city and government compounds is based on consultation in order to protect civilians from bombings and prolonging it is a waste of humans and ammunitions." Kunduz police chief Mohammad Qasim Jangalbagh said the city center had been cleared and residents were starting to return. "Getting the city back to normal, Afghan government forces are removing the destroyed vehicles and roadblocks from the city," Jangalbagh said. In Ghazni, the scene of days of sporadic fighting, conditions were also calmer than on Monday, with many shops reopening and more residents on the streets. "The people in the city panicked yesterday and closed their shops, but now most shops are open and business is as usual," said Deputy Governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi. Later, however, Ahmadi said eight rockets fired by insurgents landed in the city, killing one woman and wounding five children. In a separate operation that ended on Sunday, the United States, which still provides some air support to Afghan forces, said it conducted 63 air strikes on an al Qaeda training camp and another site near Kandahar. The attacks also included 200 Afghan and U.S. ground troops and were described by a U.S. spokesman as "one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan", the statement said. (Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Alison Williams and Mike Collett-White)