The Taliban in Afghanistan have stormed a major strategic urban center in the country’s north, prompting the army’s special forces to engage, an official confirmed on Saturday.
According to official sources and eyewitnesses, the insurgents began their assaults on the city of Kunduz from four directions early on Saturday, causing panic among locals.
Feroz Bashari, a government spokesman, said in a series of tweets that at least 26 Taliban fighters were killed in the first airstrike in Zakhail, Kunduz. He accused the Taliban of using civilians as human shields.
”Taliban are under extreme pressure in Badakhshan, Takhar and Baghlan [provinces],” he added. “They have launched attacks in Kunduz last night trying to divert media attention. We have enough forces on the ground in Kunduz to repel Taliban attacks and provide protection to location civilians.”
Sarwar Hussaini, a senior police official in the province, told Anadolu Agency that the attacks began at around 2.00 a.m. today (2130GMT Friday) and the fighting continues.
Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, denied the militants were using civilians as shields, and claimed at least 10 security forces were killed and many more captured in the ongoing clashes.
Kunduz, once the Taliban’s hub in the north, briefly fell twice to the group in 2015 and 2016. The city links many northern provinces to the capital Kabul.
The offensive comes as the crucial ninth round of rejuvenated yet fragile peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban was set to resume on Saturday in the Qatari capital Doha.
Afghanistan has witnessed a surge in violence ahead of next month’s presidential elections, which the Taliban insurgents oppose.