NEW: Authorities report the death of the most senior commander of the Taliban in Kunduz
Taliban denied security forces have retaken prison, police HQ
The Taliban overran Kunduz this week, releasing several hundred prisoners
Afghan security forces started retaking parts of Kunduz from the Taliban, officials said, one day after the key city had largely fallen in a major victory for the insurgents.
“A big military operation to clear all Kunduz city is about to start,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said Tuesday.
U.S. forces joined in the military action, launching an airstrike in Kunduz on Tuesday, said Brian Tribus, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The Kunduz prison, a police compound and the neighborhood of Zir Dawra are among the areas Afghan forces have secured, Sediqqi said. The Taliban denied the prison and police facility had been secured by Afghan forces.
A day earlier, Sediqqi said Kunduz had largely fallen into “the hand of enemies.” Kunduz is the largest city to be overrun by the Taliban since 2001.
Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the Kunduz police chief, said Taliban insurgents seized the main roundabout in the city and made it to the prison, where they freed several hundred inmates. While Hussaini said 500 prisoners were freed, Rahmatullah Nabil, head of the National Directorate of Security, said the total was closer to 600. Of those, 110 prisoners were Taliban insurgents, Nabil said.
The Taliban also claimed to have seized a 200-bed hospital – posting photos to social media that they claimed proved their control of the facility.
Also in Kunduz, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that two of its vehicles had been “taken out of its offices in the city,” but it did not say by who.
“Through its contact with all the relevant parties, the ICRC has been given reassurances that the vehicles would be returned in the near future,” spokesman Zarlasht Sarmast said in an email.
Death toll rising
A public health official in Kunduz reported 170 civilian casualties in the fighting, including 16 people who were killed, according to journalist Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul. A Doctors Without Borders facility had admitted more than 100 injured people as of Monday, Rasmussen told CNN.
Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the Kunduz police chief, said 83 Taliban militants have been killed, mostly in Afghan and coalition airstrikes.
Mawlawi Salam, the most senior commander of the Taliban in Kunduz, was killed, along with his deputy and 15 of their fighters in an airstrike, according to a statement from the National Directorate of Security.
“Afghan security forces will turn Kunduz into a great graveyard for the enemy,” it read.
In the past 24 hours, 17 Afghan security forces have been killed and another 18 troops were wounded in fighting, acting defense minister Masoom Stanekzai said Tuesday afternoon. Stanekzai’s toll was countrywide, not just in Kunduz, he said.
Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani repeated the claim that security forces had retaken control of the prison and the police headquarters. How long it would take to regain control of the rest of the city – a task made more difficult as Taliban fighters hid among civilians – was unclear, he said.
In a statement recounting his news conference from the presidential palace, Ghani said reinforcements, including an army battalion, special forces and commandos had arrived in Kunduz, and “the city is in the process of being cleared of terrorist groups.”
“The problem is that the treacherous enemy is using civilians as shields,” he said. “The Afghan government is a responsible government so it cannot carry out airstrikes on a city and on the houses of its people.”
Coordination among security forces has improved, he said, adding that “they are prepared to give any sacrifice to frustrate the attempts of the enemies of the people of Afghanistan who want to disrupt security on orders of others.”
A big prize
For months, the Taliban was eyeing Kunduz and bolstered its strength north of the city before moving in.
Kunduz is the capital of Kunduz province, an affluent area in northern Afghanistan known for its trade ties. The main route to Tajikistan also runs through Kunduz province.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that initial reports suggest the Taliban were able to infiltrate, rather than fight their way into, the city.
“The whole focus is on how to retake it and hold those positions,” he said.
The release of 500 to 600 prisoners by the Taliban makes the security situation in the city even more challenging.
One of the newly released prisoners spoke to CNN.
“We were hearing gunshots throughout the day, but it was 4 p.m. when the Kunduz prison guards left the compound. Then, the inmates broke all the doors and fences and started running toward the main gate,” he said.
“As soon as we opened the main gate, we saw a group of armed Taliban outside the gate. They told us that we were free and could go home. … We all headed towards our homes.”
Masoud Popalzai reported from Kabul, and Holly Yan and Eliott C. McLaughlin reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Nic Robertson and Bex Wright also contributed to this report.