KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AFP) – Taliban insurgents launched an assault on Kunduz on Monday, triggering intense fighting and forcing residents to hide in their homes, one year after the militants briefly took control of the strategic Afghan 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.
“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,” said 28-year-old Kunduz resident Abdullah.
“Since early morning we’ve been trapped inside our houses, we cannot move out to buy bread for our breakfast.”
Mahmood Danish, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor told AFP Taliban fighters had begun attacking the city from four directions before dawn.
“The Taliban are using civilian houses as shelters,” he said, adding there were militants in the southern part of the city, including near Kunduz regional hospital.
He said government forces were deployed across the city, including in the air, and had driven militants out of one district.
A Taliban spokesman said insurgents had killed multiple soldiers and were making “rapid” progress.
“Early today, our men launched an offensive on the city of Kunduz from four directions,” Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
“We also captured four key police checkpoints. Now, the men have entered Seh Darak, Pukhti Maidan and Speen Zar Chaman of Kunduz city.
“We are making rapid advances; a number of enemy forces were killed and wounded, and the rest are on the verge of fleeing and are flustered.”
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.
Ghani seeks aid in Brussels
Ghani will meet with world leaders in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday in a bid to secure financial aid from the international community up to 2020 to rebuild his war-ravaged country.
The meeting will try to drum up support from an international community suffering from donor fatigue as it grapples with conflicts in Syria and Iraq plus the worst migration crisis since World War II.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are among those who will join hosts Ghani and EU President Donald Tusk.
The conference comes as Afghanistan struggles with the legacy of decades of conflict and insurgency, and 15 years after the US invasion of 2001.
In September, Kabul signed a peace deal with notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads the largely dormant Hezb-i-Islami militant group, a move that will have little impact on security but is a symbolic victory in efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Financial support is “crucial” in order “to bring about a new strategic shift towards stabilisation and possibly peace” in Afghanistan, despite the country not having “been in the headlines for many years”, officials said ahead of the Brussels conference.
“Nobody can afford for Afghanistan to destabilise again,” a senior EU official added.
After seizing Kunduz on September 28, 2015, the Taliban held the city for two days and eventually announced they were withdrawing from the outskirts on October 15.
The United Nations said that battle left 289 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
A US airstrike during the battle to dislodge the militants hit a hospital operated by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres on October 3, killing 42 people including patients and medical staff.