US forces launched airstrikes on Friday to counter a major Taliban assault on an Afghan provincial capital, where terrified residents cowered in their homes amid explosions and gunfire as security forces fought to beat the insurgents back.
Officials said Afghan special forces were also being deployed to the southeastern city of Ghazni after the latest attempt by the Taliban to capture an urban centre, with the assault coming as pressure builds on the insurgents to enter peace talks.
Ghazni — less than two hours by road from Kabul — has been under threat from massing Taliban fighters for months, with residents saying the complex nature of the attacks was unprecedented in its scale.
A spokesman for US Forces in Afghanistan said the fighting had “ceased” as of today morning, hours after the insurgents began the assault late yesterday from several positions around the city.
Sporadic gunfire continued to echo amid intermittent clashes, with officials telling residents to stay in their homes as Taliban fighters roamed the streets. Power has been cut to the area since fighting erupted.
Earlier, residents described heavy gunfire ringing out and a government building set on fire.
“We are scared for our lives. The Taliban are roaming everywhere in and around the city,” shopkeeper Mohammad Haleem said.
Another resident, Yasan, said the Taliban were using loudspeakers at the mosque to warn residents to stay in their homes.
“Heavy explosions and gunfire can be heard. We are terrified,” Yasan wrote in a Facebook post.
Civilian houses and army checkpoints came under mortar attack and the bodies of dozens of Taliban fighters were in the streets, provincial governor spokesman Arif Noori said.
The US said that the city remained under government control.
“US Forces responded with close-air support this morning in #Ghazni,” the official account for US Forces in Afghanistan tweeted on Friday.
“Afghan forces held their ground and maintain control of all govt. centres. Another failed attempt by Taliban to seize terrain while creating strategically inconsequential headlines,” it continued.
“Initial reports indicate minimal Afghan security force casualties,” the US spokesman later told AFP, adding that American forces deployed attack helicopters and conducted a drone strike in the response.
Baz Mohammad Himmat, head of the civilian hospital in Ghazni, said at least 16 people had been killed in the melee, including 14 soldiers and two residents. A spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said the Taliban had suffered heavy casualties in the onslaught and confirmed the airstrikes.
Police special forces have also been deployed to help block the Taliban advance, an Afghan security official said.
The Taliban issued a statement claiming to have captured “most of the government buildings inside the city”, and claiming to have killed and wounded 140 security forces.
The insurgents frequently exaggerate their battlefield gains and downplay losses incurred during the fighting.
Afghan forces have been struggling to hold back the resurgent militant group since the withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.