Kabul: The Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in a massive assault today involving hundreds of fighters, and now control a major urban area for the first time since the 2001 US-led invasion.
"Kunduz city has collapsed into the hands of the Taliban," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Associated Press. The fall of Kunduz marks a major setback for government forces, who have struggled to combat the Taliban since the US and NATO shifted to a supporting role at the end of last year.
Military reinforcements have been sent to Kunduz, where government forces managed to fend off a major Taliban assault earlier this year. "We are trying our best to clear the city as soon as possible," Sediqqi said.
In a multi-pronged assault that took military and intelligence agencies by surprise, the insurgents sent hundreds of fighters into Kunduz, a once-wealthy city at a key Central Asian crossroads, where they seized government buildings and freed hundreds of prisoners.
Residents said the militants reached the main square 12 hours after launching their attack. They said photographs of President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders were torn down and the white flag of the Taliban was raised. They said residents were streaming to the airport in an effort to flee.
The deputy spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani had earlier described the situation in Kunduz as "fluid." Zafar Hashemi said the president was "in constant contact with the security and defense leadership to provide them with guidance." "Our first priority is the safety and security of residents," he said.
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders said it had treated more than 100 wounded people in Kunduz since the assault began, including 36 who were "in critical condition, with severe abdominal and head injuries."
The Taliban used social media to claim the "conquest" of Kunduz and reassure residents that the jobs of teachers, doctors and other civil employees, and their personal property, were safe. The Taliban have a history of brutality, and are known to ban women's education as well as music, movies and other trappings of modern life in areas they control.