Taliban insurgents launched an assault on the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday, triggering intense fighting and forcing residents to hide in their homes, exactly one year after the militants briefly seized the strategic city.
Government helicopters were targeting gunmen from the air in a bid to repel the attack, a day before President Ashraf Ghani is due to meet world powers at a major donors conference in Brussels.
“People of Kunduz are panicked and trying to flee but they are caught in the middle of fighting,” Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani, Kunduz provincial council member, told Agence France Presse.
“Please help us to get rid of this chaos and crises, or our people will be killed,” he said, warning that the province was on the verge of collapse.
Sheer Ali Kamawal, commander of the 808 Tandar police zone in Kunduz, said the attack began at around midnight and fighting was going on in and around the city. Some Taliban fighters had entrenched themselves in homes.
Kunduz resident Abdullah, 28, said he was unable to move.
“We are very hungry and we do not have access to food at the moment. The city is deserted, the shops are closed… The whole city is surrounded by the Taliban.
The insurgents, who are known to exaggerate their claims, said they had killed multiple soldiers and were making “rapid” progress.
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attack had been launched from four directions, and that the insurgents had also captured four police checkpoints and were spreading throughout the city’s neighborhoods.
Kabul officials downplayed the strength of the attack, but admitted that one policeman had been killed and four injured.
NATO said it was aware of “ongoing sporadic fighting” and was working to assist Afghan forces in the area, including with air support.
The attack comes just over a year after the Taliban overran Kunduz, the only provincial capital to have fallen into their hands since they were ousted from power in 2001. Government control of the city has been shaky ever since.
During that attack Afghan forces were in disarray and U.S. Green Beret special operations troops ended up helping the fight over several grueling days, according to a declassified U.S. military report.
On Monday, however, the Afghan interior ministry said security forces were “fighting bravely against the terrorists.”
The attack also came as the Taliban have stepped up attacks in different parts of Afghanistan, including the southern province of Helmand, where they have been threatening the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
Ghani will meet with world leaders in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday in a bid to secure financial aid from the international community.
The meeting, 15 years after the U.S. invasion of 2001, will try to drum up support for the Afghan government over the next four years despite donor fatigue compounded by conflicts in Syria and Iraq plus the migration crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are among those who will join hosts Ghani and EU President Donald Tusk.