ISLAMABAD—Afghanistan’s national security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, launched a counteroffensive against the Taliban Tuesday to retake control of the northern city of Kunduz, the first major city the insurgents have captured since being ousted from power in 2001.
Both sides made conflicting claims about the fighting and death toll. Health officials said, since the fighting began, local hospitals have recorded 16 dead and nearly 200 wounded in the fighting, but gave no other details.
The Afghan defense ministry said its security forces, including commando units, began attacking Taliban positions early Tuesday in an effort to enter Kunduz, population 300,000, a strategic transportation hub in the country’s north.
The defense ministry said U.S. planes also bombed insurgents at the ministry’s request.
NATO spokesman Colonel Brian Tribus confirmed the airstrike was carried out, and said the strike was done “to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces” around Kunduz.
President Ashraf Ghani told reporters in Kabul that national forces have made quick advances, retaking control of several buildings, including a newly built police station and the city’s prison.
Ghani, who marked his first anniversary in office Tuesday, said that airstrikes have inflicted heavy casualties on the opposition, insisting Taliban insurgents are using residents in Kunduz as “human shields.”
He urged his nation to trust Afghan troops and not give in to “fear and terror.”
But the Taliban denied official claims of advances in Kunduz.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement emailed to VOA, said the insurgents remain in firm control of the city and are consolidating positions to defend Kunduz.
The Associated Press reported Taliban gunmen patrolled Kunduz streets Tuesday, setting up checkpoints, searching for government loyalists and sealing off exit routes for anyone trying to leave the city.
Taliban insurgents overran the Afghan city of Kunduz Monday in a surprise multipronged offensive.
Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai said in Kabul that 17 security forces had been killed. He also urged the Taliban to cease the bloodshed and try to resolve differences through peaceful means.
The battlefield setback is another blow against Ghani’s government, which has already come under fire for failing to improve governance and security around the country, and counter widespread corruption in state institutions.
The Taliban had come close to capturing Kunduz in April, but Afghan security forces turned back the assault. At the time, Ghani and other officials had promised they would not allow the insurgents to come closer again.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said during an address late Monday at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York that some of the attackers had come from abroad. He called on Pakistan to live up to a promise to crack down on known terror groups.
“We also call on regional stakeholders and our international partners to realize the gravity of the situation, and use their good offices or any effective means to support our aspirations for a genuine and durable confidence-building peace process leading to talks with willing Taliban and other armed opposition groups,” Abdullah said.
Through his spokesman, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and stressed the need for “a peaceful settlement of differences” in Afghanistan.
United Nations and international rights groups have called on all sides to safeguard civilians.
The Taliban raised its flag over the city and freed all the prisoners from the central jail shortly after seizing control Monday.
Afghan Intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, told reporters on Tuesday that there were 600 inmates in the detention center, including more than 100 “low-level” Taliban fighters.
The fall of Kunduz, one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Afghanistan, is seen a major setback for government forces. The surrounding province, also called Kunduz, is one of the country’s chief breadbaskets and has rich mining assets.
Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir said this is not the first time the Taliban has assaulted the northern city during the current fighting season.
“A city surrounded by [the] Taliban and then at any time it was predictable that they (the insurgents) will launch an offensive on the city itself, and again they (the government) were not prepared for it, So, that is a total failure, a failure of leadership both at the national level as well as at the local level,” Mir said.
Afghan security forces have been sorely tested this year, following the withdrawal at the end of 2014 of international combat troops. Army and police have suffered huge casualties and their resources have been spread thinly across the country as the Taliban have taken their fight to topple the Kabul government to every corner of the country.