Afghan troops recaptured the centre of the strategic northern city of Kunduz on Thursday amid fierce clashes with Taliban militants, three days after losing the provincial capital in a humbling defeat for Kabul and its U.S. allies.
Fighting raged in other parts of the city, whose seizure represented a major victory for the insurgents and raised questions over whether NATO-trained Afghan forces were ready to go it alone now most foreign combat troops have left.
Residents said soldiers were conducting house-to-house searches and had removed the Taliban flag from the central square, replacing it with government colours.
“There are military helicopters in the sky and government forces everywhere,” said Abdul Ahad, a doctor in the city. “Dead Taliban are on the streets, but there are still (militants) in some government buildings fighting Afghan forces.”
A Taliban spokesman denied the government had retaken all of Kunduz and said insurgent fighters had withdrawn to the edges of the city in order to attempt to encircle Afghan and U.S. forces.
The Afghan army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Murad Ali Murad, said most Taliban fighters had fled, although some were holed up in civilians’ homes.
“Our plan is to force them out of Kunduz,” said Mr. Murad, who flew to the city on Wednesday to personally oversee the recapture operation. “We will take them out of districts and then out of the province.” A Ministry of Defence statement said 150 Taliban had been killed and 90 wounded in the overnight offensive.
At least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in the fighting as of Wednesday, according to a tweet from health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar. He also said hospitals in Kunduz had treated about 340 injured.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said fighting continued. “It was our tactic to vacate the city to allow enemy troops to enter so we could encircle them,” he said.