Taliban secure hold on key Afghan city despite US airstrike

Kabul: A day after capturing their first major city since the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban fanned out in full force today, closing roads, throwing up checkpoints and torching government buildings as residents huddled indoors, fearful of renewed fighting as Afghan forces deployed for a counteroffensive US warplanes carried out an early morning airstrike on Taliban positions, but government ground troops sent to try to retake Kunduz, one of Afghanistan's wealthiest and most strategic cities, were stalled by roadblocks and ambushes, unable to move closer than about a mile toward their target.

A NATO officer said more airstrikes were unlikely as "all the Taliban are inside the city and so are all the people." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media on the issue. His words suggested the fight to retake the city would involve painstaking street-by-street fighting as government forces try to avoid civilian casualties in retaking control.

Inside the city, residents were stunned by the audacity of the insurgents, who attacked Kunduz on a number of fronts before dawn on Monday, taking the government, intelligence agency and military by surprise. The insurgents used mosque loudspeakers to try to reassure people they were safe.

But residents, recalling the group's brutality during its 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, were fearful of what was to come. "Kunduz is a ghost city now, fear has locked people inside their homes," said Folad Hamdad, a local freelance journalist who escaped late Monday to neighbouring Takhar province.

He said Taliban gunmen were going door to door "searching for government officials, local police commanders, anyone they can think of. No one is safe." The fall of the city of 300,000 inhabitants, the first urban area taken by the Taliban since the US invasion ousted their regime 14 years ago, is a major setback to President Ashraf Ghani, who has staked his presidency on bringing peace to Afghanistan and seeking to draw the Taliban to peace talks.

In a televised address, he vowed to take Kunduz back from the insurgents, urging the nation to trust Afghan troops to do the job. "The enemy has sustained heavy casualties," he said. "The enemy's main objective was to create fear and terror." Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai said the fighters had infiltrated the city during the recent Eid holiday, the biggest of the year when millions of Afghans move around the country to spend time with family.

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