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Taliban move closer to capital after taking Ghazni city

The Taliban have taken the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni just 150 kilometres (95 miles) from Kabul, a senior lawmaker and the insurgents said on Thursday.

The city - the 10th provincial capital fall to the insurgents in a week - lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway, effectively serving as a gateway between the capital and militant strongholds in the south. Taliban insurgents now hold 10 of 34 provincial capitals.

"The Taliban took control of the key areas of the city - the governor's office, the police headquarters and the prison," Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, head of the provincial council, said.

He added that fighting continued in parts of the city but that the provincial capital was largely in the insurgents' hands.

The Taliban also confirmed capturing the city, according to a statement posted by the insurgency's spokesman on social media.

The Afghan conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when US-led forces began the final stage of a troop withdrawal due to end later this month following a 20-year occupation.

The loss of the Ghazni will likely pile more pressure on the country's already overstretched airforce, needed to bolster Afghanistan's scattered security forces who have increasingly been cut off from reinforcements by road.

In less than a week the insurgents have seized 10 provincial capitals and have now encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Fighting was also raging in Kandahar and Lashkar Gar - pro-Taliban heartlands in the south - as well as Herat in the west.

Late Wednesday, the Taliban claimed to have overrun the heavily fortified jail in Kandahar, saying it was "completely conquered after a long siege" and that "hundreds of prisoners were released and taken to safety".

The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters and replenish their ranks.

The loss of the jail is a further ominous sign for the country's second city, which has been besieged for weeks by the Taliban.

The city was once the stronghold of the Taliban - whose forces coalesced in the eponymously named province in the early 1990s - and its capture would serve as both a massive tactical and psychological victory for the militants.

Rapid gains

Even when the Taliban ruled the country they did not control all of the north. This time, they appear to be determined to secure it fully before turning their attention to Kabul.

In Washington, a US defence official on Wednesday cited US intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90, following their recent rapid gains.

"But this is not a foregone conclusion" the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that the Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance.

All gateways to Kabul, which lies on a plain surrounded by mountains, were choked with civilians fleeing violence, a Western security source said, adding that there was a risk Taliban fighters could be among them.

"The fear is of suicide bombers entering the diplomatic quarters to scare, attack and ensure everyone leaves at the earliest opportunity," he said. The Taliban, who controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when it was ousted for harbouring al- Qaida chief Osama bin Laden after September 11, wants to defeat the US-backed government and reimpose strict Islamic law.

A new generation of Afghans, who have come of age since 2001, is worried that the progress made in areas such as women's rights and media freedom will be lost.

[Source: The Times of India, Agencies, Delhi, 12Aug21]

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