KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban seized more than half of the strategic northern city of Kunduz on Monday, including a hospital, a courthouse and other government buildings, in an assault by hundreds of insurgents who are now locked in fierce battles with government forces, police said.
Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for the provincial police chief, told The Associated Press that the insurgents overran more than half the city after launching coordinated early morning attacks. The city’s fall would mark a major loss for the government as it struggles to combat the insurgents without the aid of U.S. and NATO combat troops.
The deputy spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani described the situation in Kunduz as “fluid.” Zafar Hashemi said the president was “in constant contact with the security and defense leadership to provide them with guidance.”
“Our first priority is the safety and security of residents,” he said.
The Taliban launched their spring offensive earlier this year with a major assault on Kunduz that government forces managed to repel with the aid of reinforcements. Since then the Taliban are believed to have regrouped and allied with other insurgents.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the target of the assault was the city’s main prison and police headquarters.
“Security forces in Kunduz were prepared for an attack, but not one of this size, and not one that was coordinated in 10 different locations at the same time,” he said. “Right now intensive gun battles are going on inside the city. Part of the city is under the control of the Taliban, including the markets, shops and a number of government buildings.”
Analyst Faheem Dashty said Afghan security and intelligence agencies had been “caught by surprise” in what appeared to be a “big failure” of security and intelligence. “They were expecting a big attack but couldn’t defend the city.”
Strategically located Kunduz, capital of the province of the same name, is one of Afghanistan’s wealthiest cities. The breadbasket province, which borders Tajikistan and is at a crucial central Asian crossroads, is a major producer of grain and other food.
The fall of Kunduz would mark the first time the Taliban have seized a major city since their government was overthrown in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. It would raise major concerns over whether the government can secure Afghanistan without the aid of U.S. and NATO troops, who shifted from a combat to a supporting role at the end of last year.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an ongoing military operation, said the U.S. military was aware the Taliban had taken control of a hospital and a number of government buildings in the city, and that both sides — the Taliban and government forces — had sustained a significant number of casualties.
Early indications were that the Afghan forces were in position to throw back the attackers and regain control of the city, the official said.
The Kunduz assault highlighted the resiliency of the Taliban following the revelation earlier this year that their reclusive longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar died two years ago. A bitter internal dispute over the appointment of his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, has yet to be fully resolved, but seems to have had little impact on the battlefield.
Hundreds of gunmen stormed the city at around 3 a.m. from several directions, officials said. Kunduz Governor Omar Safi was not in the city at the time, they said. The United Nation’s Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said all staff had been evacuated from its Kunduz office.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on his Twitter account, saying the fighters were entering hospitals around the city hunting for wounded government troops. He advised residents to remain indoors.
Abdul Wadood Wahidi, spokesman for the Kunduz governor, said earlier that three police officers had been wounded and “more than 20 bodies of Taliban fighters are on the battlefield.”
He said reinforcements from neighboring provinces had already arrived in Kunduz city, with more on the way from other cities, including the capital, Kabul, and Mazar-i-Sharif.
Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, said city residents were “greatly concerned” about the situation. “The Taliban are trying to take control of Kunduz city and this is why they have launched their attacks from different directions using their full power,” he said.
Artist Hussain Daoudi, an eyewitness to the assault, described “the sound of bullets and blasts almost everywhere in the city.”
Local officials say the Taliban have expanded from their southern heartland and joined forces across northern Afghanistan with other regional insurgent groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The Taliban have seized a number of rural districts in recent months, even if only temporarily, but Kunduz marks their first major advance into an urban area.
Afghan forces have been largely on their own since the U.S. and NATO concluded their combat mission at the end of last year, shifting to a training and advising capacity. The local security forces have held their ground and repulsed a number of major attacks while taking their heaviest casualties since the 2001 invasion.
Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.