Afghan security forces backed by U.S. advisers and air strikes fought on Monday to drive Taliban fighters out of the embattled city of Ghazni, where hundreds of people have been killed or wounded during four days of fighting.
The Taliban attack on Ghazni, a strategic center on the main highway linking the capital Kabul with southern Afghanistan, is a blow to President Ashraf Ghani weeks before parliamentary elections are due and dampens hopes of a start to peace talks.
The insurgents seized control of the districts of Khawaja Omari, north of Ghazni city and Ajrestan, in the west, with officials saying dozens of Afghan security forces had either been killed or were missing.
Diplomats in Kabul said the government had admitted being taken by surprise by the attack and after 72 hours with minimal public comment from the presidential palace, Ghani announced on Twitter that reinforcements would be sent to the city urgently.
Afghan officials said U.S. special forces units were on the ground helping to coordinate air strikes and ground operations and the U.S. military said American aircraft had launched two dozen air strikes since Friday.
“U.S. advisers are assisting the Afghan forces and U.S. airpower has delivered decisive blows to the Taliban, killing more than 140 since August 10,” said Lt Col Martin O’Donnell, the spokesman for U.S Forces-Afghanistan.
The Afghan government controls Ghazni, he said, adding there was no threat of collapse from “isolated and disparate” Taliban forces in the city with Highway 1, the main route from Kabul, open.
“That said, clearing operations are ongoing and sporadic clashes with the Taliban, particularly outside the city, continue,” he added.
The Ghazni fighting adds to an increasingly fevered political atmosphere ahead of parliamentary elections in October, which have faced widespread concerns over potential security threats from both the Taliban and other armed groups.
As troops were battling Taliban fighters in Ghazni, a suicide bomber in Kabul detonated explosives near the office of the independent election commission, where dozens of protesters had gathered, killing at least one police officer and wounding another, said a security official who sought anonymity.
The protesters had turned out in support of a parliamentary candidate disqualified by electoral officials over suspected links with illegal armed groups, as barred lawmakers encourage protests to disrupt the panel’s activities.
News from Ghazni remains patchy and incomplete four days after the insurgents launched an assault in the early hours of Friday, with communications badly hit after fighting destroyed most of the city’s telecoms masts.
But people escaping the city have described widespread destruction and bloodshed and Afghanistan’s largest television station, Tolo News, broadcast shaky phone footage showing fires apparently raging across the blacked-out center.
About 100 soldiers and police have been killed and many wounded, said one security official, adding that the Taliban also suffered heavy casualties, including about 50 fighters killed by an air strike late on Sunday.
Interior ministry officials said the fighting had killed at least 15 civilians and wounded more than 400. More than 45 wounded Afghan soldiers were airlifted out in the last two days.
“Medication at the main hospital is reportedly becoming scarce and people are unable to safely bring casualties for treatment,” Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, the acting U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, said in a statement.
The attack on Ghazni, the heaviest blow struck by the Taliban since they came close to overrunning the western city of Farah in May, has hit hopes of peace that sprouted after a surprise three-day truce during June’s Eid al-Fitr holiday.
“Clearly the Taliban have paid no heed to the Afghan people’s calls for them to reconcile and join the peace process,” O’Donnell said.
Officials said Taliban fighters in residential areas knocked down walls to ease movement and make security forces’ task of targeting them harder.
“The militants know our forces will not attack civilians so they are using young men as human shields to walk around the city and set buildings on fire,” said one official in Kabul.