Afghan forces backed by U.S. air support battled Taliban fighters for control of the northern city of Kunduz on Tuesday, after the militants seized a provincial capital for the first time since their ouster 14 years ago.
The sudden fall of Kunduz on Monday was a major setback for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which marked its first year in power on Tuesday, and raised questions over how ready Afghan forces were to tackle the Islamist insurgency alone.
Ghani told the nation in a televised speech on Tuesday that government reinforcements had reached Kunduz and neighboring Baghlan province, and an army battalion was on its way to help embattled troops regain the city.
He said that security forces’ efforts had been hampered by Taliban fighters using civilians as human shields.
“The government is responsible, and cannot and will not bomb its own citizens,” Ghani said.
Earlier in the day, the government said in a statement that its forces had regained the city prison and the provincial police headquarters, which were overrun on Monday night.
More than 100 Taliban fighters were among the 600 prisoners who escaped during the jail attack, National Directorate of Security chief Rahmatullah Nabil told reporters on Tuesday.
U.S. military planes struck Taliban positions on the outskirts of the city, a NATO spokesman said. The attack at about 9 a.m. (12:00 midnight EDT) marked the first U.S. air strike to defend Kunduz.
“U.S. forces conducted an air strike in Kunduz today to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces operating in the vicinity of Kunduz,” said Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the NATO-led coalition.
He did not elaborate on how many coalition troops were in the area.
Precise casualties from the fighting were not known.
“The enemy is suffering heavy casualties from air strikes,” Ghani said in his speech.
Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai told reporters that 17 Afghan security personnel had been killed and 18 wounded in the past 24 hours across the country.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said three militants had died and 11 were wounded, while at least 18 Afghan police had been killed. The militants often overstate casualties they inflict on government security personnel.
“We are sending more fighters from other areas to support local mujahideen,” he said. “The situation is very serious, and intense fighting is going on between our mujahideen and Afghan forces.”
Residents in Kunduz said the Taliban were patrolling the streets in vehicles they had seized from the army, police and Western aid agencies.
“Since yesterday they gained control of our hospital, central bank and other government buildings,” said Abdul Ahad, a doctor at the 200-bed hospital in the city.
“They have been behaving very well with everyone, especially doctors. They may win people’s hearts if they stay longer.”
A shopkeeper said the number of Islamist fighters in Kunduz had increased on Tuesday and they had planted booby traps on some roads leading out of the city.
A senior commander in the hardline Islamist movement, which imposed strict Islamic law over Afghanistan for five years before it was toppled by U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, said fighters had been ordered to treat locals well.
“Mullah (Akhtar) Mansour directed his commanders in northern Afghanistan to take care of the local community by winning their hearts and minds through good behavior and self respect instead of bullets,” he said, referring to the Taliban’s new leader.
The commander added that the insurgency would not stop at Kunduz.
“This is the beginning, and our aim is Kabul. You will see how we capture Kabul and hang these puppets there in squares,” he said.
Spokesman Mujahid said one reason for the assault on Kunduz was to prove that the Taliban were still united, after Mansour’s appointment in July had threatened to splinter the group.
The Taliban has been fighting to remove the Western-backed government in Kabul since it was ousted in 2001.
The insurgency has escalated this year, after NATO withdrew almost all of its combat troops and focused instead on training the fledgling Afghan armed forces.
The U.S Embassy in Kabul issued a travel warning to its citizens on Tuesday.
“The security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical,” the statement said.
“U.S. citizens currently visiting or residing in Afghanistan may wish to consider departing.”