KABUL: In a major show of strength, Taliban militants seized sections of a strategic Afghan city southwest of Kabul on Friday following heavy clashes with Afghan forces.
The multi-pronged attack on Ghazni city, about 150 km southwest of the capital, began in the early hours of Friday as militants stormed government centers and cut off the main Ghazni-Kabul highway.
At least 16 people are believed to have died in the intense fighting. US helicopter gunships and a fighter jets pounded the city’s outskirts after the militants overran government checkposts and a former US military base, residents said.
A spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan said: “US forces responded with close-air support (US attack helicopters) and one drone strike. US aircraft also conducted a show of presence.”
Smoke and flames could be seen rising from at least two areas in the city, Shamsul Haq, a baker, told Arab News.
“The attack began about 2 a.m. The sound of artillery shelling and other heavy fire could be heard in parts of the city,” Rasool Dad, a Ghazni resident, said.
Many people chose to remain in their homes after the Taliban announced from several mosques that it captured the strategic city. Ghazni lies on the major highway linking southern and southwestern parts of the country, including parts of central areas, with the capital Kabul.
Mohammad Ali Alizada, a legislator from the province, said: “The situation is very bad. Fighting is going on. The Taliban staged an attack from four directions on the city.”
The Afghan Defense Ministry said government forces had repelled the attack inside the city. Fazel Fazly, an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani in a tweet said the entire city was under the control of the Afghani National Defense Force.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed that hundreds of militants had taken part in the attack, one of the most intense by the group since it was ousted from power in a US-led operation in 2001.
The Taliban control areas in the southern and northern parts of Afghanistan and have stepped up attacks on government forces in recent months.
Militants twice captured the northern city of Kunduz before being driven back by Afghan and US-led troops.
The latest attack on Ghazni comes as the government plans another truce with the Taliban before Eid, which is due on Aug. 20.
Taliban leaders also reportedly held direct talks with US officials last month, seeking a way to end the war.
The attack will raise further security concerns with Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary elections due in October, followed by presidential elections in about six months.