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29Sep15


US strike targets Taliban as Afghan troops mount Kunduz counterattack


The US military has launched an airstrike to aid Afghan government forces in a counteroffensive against Taliban fighters who have captured large parts of Kunduz, a strategic provincial capital in the country's north.

The hardline Islamists stormed the northern provincial capital on Monday, effectively overrunning it in their biggest triumph since being ousted from national power in 2001.

Afghan security forces said they had cleared the area around the central prison, from where the Taliban released several hundred inmates, and the police headquarters.

"The Taliban are being pushed back. In a few hours the city will be free from their hands," claimed Dowlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the defence ministry. He said the army had sent reinforcements from neighbouring Kabul and Balkh provinces, including special forces.

The Taliban meanwhile released a video on social media hailing their takeover of Kunduz with fighters showing off seized tanks and armoured cars, as they promised to enforce Islamic sharia law.

Mohammad Omar "Pakhsaparan", a commander of a unit of the Afghan local police, said the areas of Bala-e Sar, Imam Sahib and Gul Tepa were now cleared, but large portions of the city was still under Taliban control.

Col Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the US and Nato missions in Afghanistan, said the airstrike early on Tuesday morning was conducted "in order to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces", though there were no foreign troops left inside the city. He did not elaborate if more airstrikes would follow.

On Monday, as government officials and families who had the means to leave fled Kunduz, scores of civilians were caught in the crossfire.

As of noon on Tuesday (07.30am GMT), public hospitals in Kunduz had received 172 injured and 16 dead bodies, according to spokesman Wahidullah Mayar. In addition, Médecins Sans Frontières said their hospital in Kunduz had admitted more than 100 casualties, and was operating on full capacity.

"Our surgeons have been working non-stop to treat patients with gunshot wounds. We have added 18 extra beds to bring the total bed capacity to 110 in order to cope with the unprecedented level of admissions," said Guilhem Molinie, MSF's country representative.

The seizure of Kunduz happened almost exactly one year after the president, Ashraf Ghani, came to power, and illustrates the government's difficulties in reining in the insurgency in the wake of last year's mass withdrawal of foreign combat troops.

On Tuesday Ghani vowed to take the northern city back from the insurgents, urging his nation to trust Afghan troops to do the job.

In a televised address, Ghani said that security forces are "retaking government buildings and reinforcements, including special forces and commandos, are either there or on their way there.

"The enemy has sustained heavy casualties," Ghani added. He urged Afghans not to give in to "fear and terror".

Monday's multi-pronged assault on Kunduz took the Afghan authorities and military officials by surprise. Hundreds of Taliban launched a coordinated attack and after a day of fierce fighting, they managed to overrun government buildings and hoist their flag in the city square.

The governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar Safi, who was not in town at the time of the attack, but told the Wall Street Journal that he had been requesting support from the central government for months.

Kunduz is the first provincial capital in 14 years to effectively fall to the Taliban, and is possibly the militants' biggest victory since they were ousted from power in 2001.

By Tuesday morning, roads were blocked and some government buildings set on fire, several residents told the Associated Press.

"From this morning, the Taliban have been setting up checkpoints in and around the city, looking for the government employees," one resident said. "Yesterday it was possible for people to get out of the city, but today it is too late because all roads are under the Taliban control."

Taliban fighters treated the invasion as a propaganda victory. In footage broadcast on social media, insurgents exclaimed: "We want to serve the people and they have to help us. We want to establish sharia law."

The 10-minute clip posted on Facebook opens with a shot of Kunduz main square where Taliban cadres cheer as they raise their white flag under the wary gaze of subdued-looking residents.

Elsewhere fighters show off tanks and armoured cars they have captured, chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is the greatest) and roaming the streets in seized pick-up trucks.

The video ends with a message from the Taliban's newly appointed leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, though he does not appear on screen, declaring: "We do not believe in revenge" and announces a "general amnesty" for government troops wishing to defect.

Mansour's message also instructs government officials and doctors in Kunduz to carry on work as normal, and tells residents the Taliban will ensure their safety and protect their property.

The capture of Kunduz will serve to boost morale among Taliban fighters still reeling from the news two months ago that the movement's founder and leader, Mullah Omar, had passed away in 2013.

"It is a disaster for the Ghani government," Pakistani militancy expert and author Ahmed Rashid told AFP, describing Kabul as "totally disorganised".

The Afghan troops in Kunduz numbered 7,000 including local militias, he said, while local reports put the number of Taliban attackers at fewer than 1,000.

But the government had "no strategy, no ability to defend the city", Rashid said, comparing the Taliban offensive to sweeps by the Islamic State group, which controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. "The timing of it is very important," he added.

After years of costly involvement, most Nato troops pulled back from front lines in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, although a residual force of about 13,000 remains for training and counter-terrorism operations.

[Source: By Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul, The Guardian, London, 29Sep15]

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