Afghan forces try to flush out Taliban in Kunduz

Hashim Safi
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Afghan military personnel pictured near the airport during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in the northern city of Kunduz on October 1, 2015

Afghan military personnel pictured near the airport during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in the northern city of Kunduz on October 1, 2015 (AFP Photo/Wakil Kohsar)

Kabul (AFP) - Afghan forces were going from house to house hunting for remaining Taliban insurgents in Kunduz Friday, days after the stunning fall of the northern city as militant offensives gained momentum in neighbouring provinces.

Officials pushed for control of the provincial capital, strewn with bodies and charred vehicles, while in the east of the country, a US military transport plane crashed killing 11 people including six US soldiers.

The Taliban claimed to have shot the C-130 Hercules down near Jalalabad but a US defense official strongly denied the claim, saying it was "obviously an aviation mishap".

The Taliban's offensive in Kunduz, their biggest tactical success since 2001, marks a blow for Afghanistan's Western-trained forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since the end of NATO's combat mission in December.

But as fighting spreads in neighbouring Badakhshan, Takhar and Baghlan provinces, concerns are mounting that the seizure of Kunduz was merely the opening gambit in a new, bolder strategy to tighten the insurgency's grip across northern Afghanistan.

Soldiers in Kunduz secured government offices and police headquarters Friday after days of fierce clashes with insurgents, clouded by confusing and contradictory claims by both sides over who was in control.

Clearance operations, slowed by Taliban booby traps and snipers in residential buildings, appeared to be making headway.

"Today our security forces are deployed all over Kunduz," provincial police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini told AFP.

"We are searching the lanes of the city and residential houses looking for Taliban militants... We will target and kill them."

Police chief Mohammad Jangalbagh said more than 300 insurgents including some Pakistanis and Chechens had so far been killed.

"The streets are largely empty, the shops are closed, and there is no fighting between the Taliban and government forces," Zabihullah, a Kunduz resident who goes by one name, told AFP.

Food was running short and there was no electricity, while some people wounded during the fighting were too afraid of Taliban snipers to leave their homes and go to hospital, he added.

Sounds of gunfire or explosions in the city had become more intermittent by Friday morning, Shahir, another resident who goes by one name, told AFP.

"We cannot move from our houses and walk in the streets because the remaining Taliban have taken positions in tall buildings, they are firing on civilians and military," he added.

- 'Hit list' -

Amnesty International condemned the Taliban's "reign of terror" in Kunduz, citing civilian testimonies of mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches by militant death squads.

The report, which cited rights activists, claimed militants had a hit list and were using young boys to help conduct searches to track down their targets, especially women.

Precise losses in the fighting were not known, but at least 60 bodies and 400 wounded had been brought to the city hospitals, according to the health ministry.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was treating 59 children at its trauma centre in Kunduz which is running "beyond capacity".

"We are very short-staffed in the hospitals," said International Red Cross doctor Peter Esmith Ewoi, who was working in the city, adding that medical staff had been unable to reach work due to the clashes.

The ICRC said in a statement it had emergency medical supplies ready to be flown in from Kabul as soon as security at Kunduz airport improved.

- Rising insurgency -

The fall of Kunduz showcased the stubborn insurgency's potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds in the south of the country.

Their latest push occurred on Friday in the neighbouring mountainous province of Badakhshan, where militants briefly captured Baharak, a district seen as a gateway to the provincial capital.

Local media also reported that civilians in Baghlan and Takhar were making plans to flee the area, fearing being overrun by militants.

The Taliban's brutal advance is seen as a game-changer for the fractious insurgency that has been dogged by a leadership crisis since the announcement in July of founder Mullah Omar's death.

The renewed energy of the Taliban offensive has also undermined support for President Ashraf Ghani, and raised questions about Washington's plan to withdraw most US troops from Afghanistan next year.

Most NATO combat troops pulled out of Afghanistan last year but a small contingent focused on training and counter-terrorism operations remains, including roughly 10,000 American soldiers.