HERAT/KABUL (Reuters) – Regional officials in northern Afghanistan said on Wednesday they had recaptured government buildings in a provincial capital after Taliban fighters stormed it overnight, taking over the police headquarters and sparking panic among residents.
Officials said air strikes were being carried out and special forces had been deployed to push the Taliban fighters back, after the latest dramatic advance by fighters surging across the country as Washington pulls out its last troops.
The Islamist insurgents have been advancing for weeks, an offensive that has accelerated as the United States pulled out of its main base, effectively ending its two-decade intervention. Taliban gains have been especially dramatic in northern provinces where they had long been kept at bay.
Provincial governor Husamuddin Shams told Reuters the Taliban had attacked the city of Qala-e-Naw from three directions in the morning and Afghan security forces were fighting them back.
“They entered some parts of the city, but later on the enemy was faced with a strong reaction,” he said.
Video footage obtained by Reuters showed smoke over the city. Speaking on a street as gunfire could be heard in the background, a special forces commander, Sayed Nezami, said troops had “cleared the area of the enemy. The enemy suffered heavy casualties and now we are advancing and driving the enemy out of the city.”
A ministry of defence official said on condition of anonymity that the insurgents had taken control of the provincial office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and police headquarters, and were attempting to take over the governor’s office before special forces pushed them back.
“They were inside the city and the city briefly collapsed,” said the official.
Fawad Aman, Deputy Spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said government forces had managed to take back control of the police and NDS offices and within the next few hours they expected to clear the city of Taliban fighters.
Abdul Aziz Bek, head of Badghis’ provincial council, said that Afghan forces began air strikes against Taliban fighters during the afternoon.
Earlier, he described panic: “Qala-e-Naw was in a state of disarray as security forces and people do not know what to do now,” he said. “More than 200 prisoners in the central prison of the Badghis broke the prison gate and escaped.”
The United States, which toppled the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden in 2001 and has since propped up the Kabul government, agreed under then-President Donald Trump last year to pull out its troops subject to Taliban security guarantees.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, rejected advice from generals to hold on longer so that the government could make a political deal with the Taliban. U.S. troops pulled out of their main base at Bagram airfield north of Kabul on Friday, days after their commander warned of a possible civil war without them.
The prospect of a Taliban victory is alarming for millions of urban Afghans, particularly women and girls who were banned from school or most work under their rule. The Taliban say they have changed, but many remain sceptical.
As foreign forces withdraw, Taliban fighters have been swiftly gaining ground across towns in the north and western provinces, forcing soldiers to surrender and civilians to flee.
Shams said other districts of Badghis outside the capital were in the hands of the Taliban as security forces evacuated.
Afghan defence minister Bismillah Mohammadi said in a statement the war was entering a “difficult” stage and security forces were “defending Afghanistan and our compatriots with all their might and resources under all circumstances”.
Talks between Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Qatar have failed to make substantive progress, though the warring sides have been holding meetings in recent days.
Iran on Wednesday hosted Taliban and Afghan government representatives, telling them it stood ready to help end the crisis.
(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau; Editing by William Maclean, Peter Graff and Giles Elgood)