Thousands flee homes ahead of expected battle near Afghan city

By Mirwais Harooni and Kay Johnson KABUL (Reuters) - As many as 10,000 Afghan families have fled their homes as Taliban insurgents and government forces prepared for a major battle for control of the southern fringes of Kunduz city, officials said on Wednesday. The World Food Programme is preparing food packages for displaced families and expects to start distributing them this weekend. Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents backed by foreign jihadists on the outskirts of Kunduz have been in a standoff for nearly a week since the militants launched an offensive on the city late last month. The Taliban push on Kunduz, about 500 km (310 miles) north of Kabul, is the most serious threat to a provincial capital in years, although government forces insist the city will not fall to the insurgents. The Afghan army and police are fighting without substantial help from foreign troops, after the NATO military mission ended its combat role at the end of 2014. Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini said government forces would soon launch a big offensive to drive the Taliban from Gul Tepa district on the southern outskirts of the city. He said that the army and police had delayed in order to give civilians time to clear out of the area. "The Taliban inside the surrounding villages want to use them as human shields, so the villagers have escaped to the central parts of the city," Hussaini said. More than 10,000 families have officially appealed for aid as refugees of the fighting, said Abdul Salaam Hashemi, the head of Kunduz's refugee department. He said survey teams were working to verify how many of those families needed aid. The World Food Programme has verified 300 families in need of aid and is surveying more, spokesman Wahidullah Amini said. The U.N.-affiliated agency is preparing emergency kits of flour, pulses, cooking oil and high-energy biscuits for 500 families, he said, adding that food distribution in Kunduz city would begin Saturday. (Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)