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Taliban fighters battled their way into the center of Kunduz city in Afghanistan's north on Monday — hoisting their flag over the main square and seizing the provincial governor's office, witnesses and officials said.
The insurgents raised the white Taliban banner over the central city square and freed hundreds of fellow militants from the local jail, in one of the most serious security breaches in 14 years of war and a major embarrassment for Afghan forces, who abandoned a provincial headquarters for the first time.
The stunning assault came a day before President Ashraf Ghani's unity government marked its first anniversary.
The hard-line Islamist insurgents launched attacks on the northern provincial capital from three directions at around dawn and had taken over parts of the city centre after hours of clashes.
The assault was the second time this year that the Taliban have besieged Kunduz city, as the NATO-trained Afghan police and army fight largely without the help of foreign forces.
By mid-morning, the Taliban fighters were inside the city limits. A Reuters witness saw buildings on fire in the south of the city, and he saw Taliban fighters entering the government-run hospital.
Dozens of panicked residents fled to the city's main airport but were turned away by security forces. By afternoon, the fighting had reached about a kilometer (0.62 of a mile) from the city's main government compound, according to a Reuters witness.
Afghan military helicopters were firing rockets at militants in three areas on the city's outskirts, a police spokesman said. Artillery and gunfire could be heard in the city center from just after daybreak.
"Right now heavy fighting is ongoing in Khanabad, Chardara, and at Imam Saheb, the main entrances to the city," Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for Kunduz police, said. "We have enough forces and will drive them out soon."
He said 20 Taliban fighters were killed and three Afghan police wounded in the clashes.
But if Afghan forces cannot drive out the Taliban from any of the city's three main entrances, it would appear be difficult for the government to maintain control.
Special forces of the Afghan police and army were on their way from neighbouring Balkh province to help defend Kunduz, a Balkh police commander said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Majahid urged Kunduz residents to stay inside. "The mujahideen are trying to avoid any harm to Kunduz residents," he said on his official Twitter account, referring to Taliban fighters.
"Residents have to be assured they will not face any problem from our side."
Later in the day, Mujahid said that Taliban fighters had seized the hospital and taken over government buildings.
A hospital official confirmed Taliban fighters had entered the hospital briefly, apparently looking for wounded government fighters.
"They just visited our rooms. They didn't harm anybody and didn't damage anything. They left soon after," said the official, who declined to be identified as he feared repercussions.
The once-quiet north of Afghanistan has seen escalating violence in recent years. Kunduz city was the center of fierce fighting in April as the Taliban, driven from power by a 2001 U.S.-backed military intervention, sought to gain territory after the end of NATO's combat mission last year.
A scaled-down NATO mission now mostly trains and advises Afghan forces, although U.S. drones still target militant leaders and a U.S. counter-terrorist force also operates in the country.