Afghan troops push into city of Kunduz, Taliban in retreat

Kunduz Back Under Government Control: Security Forces


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan government forces pushed overnight into the strategic northern city of Kunduz that was captured by the Taliban earlier this week, forcing the insurgents to retreat amid heavy street battles that were still underway Thursday.

But despite prompt claims from officials that much of the city had been liberated, by midday, residents remaining inside Kunduz and hunkering down at their homes said they could still hear explosions and shootings outside.

The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban on Monday marked a major setback for Afghan government forces, which have struggled to combat insurgents with limited aid from the U.S. and NATO troops. The international forces' role shifted to training and support after all NATO combat forces withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of last year.

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The Taliban denied they had lost the city and the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed on Thursday that it was still in their hands, saying "the Taliban flag is still flying" over Kunduz.

The spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the operation to take back Kunduz was launched late Wednesday, with ground forces moving from the airport — where they had massed since the city fell — over roads that had been mined by the insurgents.

See photos of the clashes with Taliban militants in Kunduz:

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Clashes against Taliban militants in Kunduz
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Afghan troops push into city of Kunduz, Taliban in retreat
A burnt-out police pick-up truck stands in the street after Afghan security forces retook control of Kunduz city from the Taliban militants in northeastern Kunduz province, on October 1, 2015. Afghan forces retook control of the strategic northern city of Kunduz on October 1 after a three-day Taliban occupation that dealt a stinging blow to the country's NATO-trained military. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan special forces arrive at the airport as they launch a counteroffensive to retake the city from Taliban insurgents, in Kunduz on Septmber 29, 2015. The Afghan army on September 29 launched a counter-offensive to retake Kunduz from the Taliban, a day after insurgents overran the strategic northern city. AFP PHOTO / Nasir Waqif (Photo credit should read NASIR WAQIF/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier carries a colleague who was wounded during an offensive with Taliban insurgents in Kunduz on September 30, 2015. NATO said September 30 its special forces were supporting Afghan troops in Kunduz after Taliban insurgents seized the city, fought off a counter-attack and advanced on the airport to shore up their biggest victory in 14 years. Heavy fighting was underway near the northern city's airport where government forces retreated, highlighting the potent challenge the militants pose after their lightning capture of Kunduz. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This photograph taken on September 29, 2015 shows Afghan security personnel keeping watch as heavy fighting erupted near the airport on the outskirts of Kunduz. Taliban insurgents who seized the Afghan city of Kunduz have defied a counter-offensive and advanced on the airport where government forces retreated after the fall of the strategic northern gateway. Heavy fighting erupted near the airport on the city's outskirts as the insurgents closed in late on September 29, highlighting the potent challenge the militants represent after their lightning capture of Kunduz the previous day. AFP PHOTO / Nasir Waqif (Photo credit should read NASIR WAQIF/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sediqqi claimed that control of Kunduz "was taken by 3.30 a.m." on Thursday but conceded that an operation "to clear the city is ongoing" and could take some days.

He told The Associated Press the battle is a joint army and police operation and that roadblocks set up by the Taliban to prevent any movement had been removed. He said essential supplies, including food and medicine, would be delivered soon to the residents.

Sediqqi said around 200 Taliban fighters have been killed in the fighting so far but did not provide a figure for government casualties. Kunduz police chief, Sarwar Hussaini, said bodies of dead Taliban fighters lay on some of the city's streets but that the clearance operation was complicated because some Taliban fighters had hidden inside people's homes.

Residents reported street battles and gunfire in various areas of the city.

Zabihullah, who lives close to the main city square and who like many Afghans prefers to use one name, said that "intense fighting is continuing on the streets of city."

"The situation is really critical and getting worse, and I've just heard a huge explosion from a bomb near my house," he said, speaking to the AP over the telephone from his home.

Another resident, Hameedullah said that heavy clashes were underway in the Khuja Mashhad area of the city, about 200 meters (218 yards) north of the square. "Everyone is staying indoors, but there is still sporadic firing," he said. "There are explosions but I can't tell if they are bombs being dropped from the planes I can hear overhead, or rockets."

Fighting was also on in the Bandr-i-Iman Sahib district in the west of Kundiz, where resident Munib Khan said the Taliban were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and were putting up a heavy fight. Khan said the fighting had taken front-stage to the "many problems inside the city," which now has "no water, no electricity."

It was not possible to immediately gauge how much of Kunduz was secured by the Afghan forces. The capture of the city by the Taliban, which began with a coordinated attack Monday, had taken the government, military and intelligence agencies by surprise.

The Taliban spokesman, Mujahid, in remarks posted on his Twitter account, claimed that "life in Kunduz is normal" — an apparent attempt to refute government statements that Afghan forces had pushed the insurgents out from the center to the city's more far-flung neighborhoods.

Earlier in the morning, Mujahid had sent a text message to The Associated Press, saying that "the United States, with their puppets, have been bombing Kunduz city. Government forces have received heavy casualties."

Afghan troops, backed by U.S. airstrikes, had massed on the outskirts of the city and at the Kunduz airport on Wednesday in a buildup of what was expected to be a long and difficult campaign to drive out the Taliban.

Also Wednesday, two U.S. airstrikes were launched around 5 p.m. in support of the Afghan troops at Kunduz airport, said U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, spokesman for the U.S.-NATO mission in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. has carried out five airstrikes since Kunduz fell Monday.

President Ashraf Ghani has come under intense criticism for the fall of the city. He went on national television to reassure his people earlier this week that Kunduz would be recaptured.

But the damage to Ghani's one-year-old administration had been done. On Thursday morning, hundreds of people gathered outside the presidential palace in Kabul, calling for his resignation.

"We are not happy with this government, every day there is fighting," said Foruzan Haydari, a 23-year-old student.

In a statement Thursday, the presidential palace said Ghani had spoken with military leaders in Kunduz to get an update on the situation. It also said the president will send a team to Kunduz to investigate how the Taliban had been able to infiltrate the city.

RELATED: History of fighting in Kunduz and Afghanistan

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Taliban capture Kunduz - history of fighting in Kunduz, Afghanistan
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Afghan troops push into city of Kunduz, Taliban in retreat
Clouds gather as precipitation falls over the Hindu Kush mountains during a flight between Kabul and Kunduz on April 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN - MAY 7: Afghan security forces are seen as the clashes between Afghan security forces and Taliban militants continue in Kunduz province of northern Afghanistan on May 7, 2015. The death toll rises to 175 in clashes between Taliban militants and security forces that began two weeks earlier in Afghanistan's northern province of Kunduz. (Photo by Police Department/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN - MAY 7: Afghan security forces are seen as the clashes between Afghan security forces and Taliban militants continue in Kunduz province of northern Afghanistan on May 7, 2015. The death toll rises to 175 in clashes between Taliban militants and security forces that began two weeks earlier in Afghanistan's northern province of Kunduz. (Photo by Police Department/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Afghan security force personel patrol in Kunduz on April 30, 2015. Intense fighting flared in northern Afghanistan as security forces battled Taliban insurgents advancing on April 28 on a major provincial capital, officials said, with terrified residents fearing the fall of the besieged city. Hundreds of militants closed in on Kunduz city after attacking outlying police and army checkposts on April 24, just hours after the Taliban launched their annual spring offensive. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan security force personel keeps watch during a patrol in Kunduz on April 30, 2015. Intense fighting flared in northern Afghanistan as security forces battled Taliban insurgents advancing on April 28 on a major provincial capital, officials said, with terrified residents fearing the fall of the besieged city. Hundreds of militants closed in on Kunduz city after attacking outlying police and army checkposts on April 24, just hours after the Taliban launched their annual spring offensive. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan security force personel stops journalists from taking photographs in Kunduz on April 30, 2015. Intense fighting flared in northern Afghanistan as security forces battled Taliban insurgents advancing on April 28 on a major provincial capital, officials said, with terrified residents fearing the fall of the besieged city. Hundreds of militants closed in on Kunduz city after attacking outlying police and army checkposts on April 24, just hours after the Taliban launched their annual spring offensive. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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