Afghan security forces are engaged in intense fighting with Taliban militants in Ghazni, three days after the start of an offensive on the strategic city that has so far killed more than 150 people, according to a local member of parliament.
Mohammad Arif Shahjahan, an MP from Ghazni, told CNN Monday Taliban fighters had taken control of key buildings, including the police headquarters and some government offices.
Many of the dead were security forces, he said, adding that many more had been injured, as fighting continued into its fourth day, despite government and US assurances that the assault had failed.
Taliban militants stormed the strategically important city Friday in an attempt to establish a base within easy access of the capital Kabul to the north, and roads to western and some southern provinces.
The move perhaps the most serious challenge to the government’s hold in urban areas since the Taliban briefly occupied the city of Kunduz in 2015, and comes at a time when the Trump administration appears to be accelerating negotiations with an insurgency it has been fighting for 17 years.
According to a tweet from Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry Sunday, Ghazni police had started a planned clearance operation in the city, in an attempt to push the militants out.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on his official Twitter account Sunday that he had chaired an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Ghazni Province, and it was determined that further back-up was needed.
“After detailed review of the reports, the meeting decided that in order to consolidate operational gains, further reinforcements should be dispatched to the province on urgent basis,” Ghani said.
There were reports of sporadic fighting over the weekend, but a spokesman for the Afghan National Army said Saturday the city was “under the complete control of Afghan security forces.”
“Afghan National Army reinforcements are making their way to Ghazni city to help the Afghan National Police search and clear the city of insurgents that may still be hiding in the city,” said Maj. Mohammad Farooq, an Afghan National Army 203rd Corps spokesman.
Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) acting humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, said in a statement that people have been unable to safely bring casualties to the city’s main hospital for treatment.
“Residents of Ghazni City have seen their city turn into a battlefield since Friday morning, with fighting and clashes reportedly still ongoing,” said Peeperkorn.
“Parties to the conflict need to ensure that access to medical services is not denied and respect for medical facilities and staff is upheld.”
The fighting began at about 1 a.m. on Friday, when hundreds of armed fighters entered Ghazni and captured a number of key sites, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban.
United States forces responded with attack helicopters and a drone strike, said US Forces Afghanistan spokesman Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell.
After intense fighting in the city’s streets, Afghan and NATO forces were able to push the Taliban to the outskirts of the city Friday afternoon, according to Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense.
US Forces Afghanistan called the offensive a “failed attempt” to seize territory.
“Tactically, operationally and strategically, the Taliban achieved nothing with this failed attack except another eye-catching, but inconsequential headline,” said LT. Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for US Forces Afghanistan.
“The fact remains that the Taliban are unable to seize terrain and unable to match the Afghan security forces or our enablement, retreating once directly and decisively engaged.”
O’Donnell said Sunday Afghan forces were in control of all government centers in the city.
It’s unclear exactly how many people were killed in the fighting.
Ghazni Hospital Director Dr. Baz Mohammad Hemat said the death toll is between 120 and 160 people and includes both military and civilian casualties. Radmanish said more than 150 Taliban fighters were also killed in the battle. Mujahid said 140 Afghan soldiers were killed, though US authorities disputed that figure.
The assault on a major population center was one of the group’s most ambitious military moves in years, and was further evidence that a violent stalemate between the government and the Taliban persists. In May, the insurgent group briefly overran the western city of Farah, but Ghazni is far more important and the scale of the attack much greater.
If the city fell to the Taliban, it would compromise the security of the capital and the eight provinces it borders.
However, while the Taliban is capable of controlling rural areas, the combination of Afghan troops with US air support has prevented its fighters from taking and holding population centers.
The assault is the latest insurgent attack in the country since the Afghan government unilaterally called off a ceasefire that it had in place for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban, along with other militant groups such as ISIS, routinely attack military and civilian targets in the country.
CNN’s Ryan Browne, Ehsan Poplazi, Euan McKirdy, Tim Lister and Mirwais Jalalzai contributed to this report