Kabul: Heavy fighting raged inside the key northern Afghan city of Kunduz for a third day on Wednesday as government forces, backed by U.S. air strikes, battled Taliban insurgents who had scored one of their boldest successes in 14 years of war.
Taliban fighters seized control of Kunduz after staging an audacious assault on the city on Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani`s biggest setback since taking office a year ago and the worst attack since the bulk of foreign troops left at the end of last year.
Kunduz was the last major city to fall when U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that were planned by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden while he was in hiding in Afghanistan.
It also became the first major city to be retaken by the Islamist insurgents since then.
Around 5,000 Afghan troops massed at Kunduz airport early on Wednesday after fighting there raged late into the night, an Afghan security official said, and Taliban fighters were driven back with the help a second U.S. air strike.
However, the morale of Afghan troops was flagging after two days of continuous fighting there, a district official said.
"We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight," said Mohammad Zahir Niazi, chief of Chardara, a district in Kunduz.
"We are only defending."
Hundreds of Afghan security forces sent to reinforce weary colleagues were stuck in neighbouring Baghlan province as Taliban fighters blocked off roads with large stones and sandbags, a senior Afghan security official said.
"The forces are fighting their way in to make it to Kunduz," he said.
A Taliban commander acknowledged his fighters had failed to hold the airport but said the Islamist group`s forces were still in control of the city.
"We actually wanted to capture the airport and ?organised a big attack last night," said a Taliban commander close to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban`s new leader.
"We could not seize the airport but captured some of its surroundings," he said.
In the city, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the police chief in Kunduz, said Afghan security forces had regained control of the police headquarters in Kunduz late Tuesday night.
"Hundreds of Taliban are killed and their dead bodies are on streets ... right now a heavy fight is going on inside the city," Hussaini told Reuters by telephone.
Afghanistan`s intelligence agency said in a statement issued late on Tuesday that an air strike had killed Mawlawi Salam, the Taliban`s shadow governor for Kunduz province, and 15 others on the outskirts of the airport.
That could not be independently verified and a Taliban source denied the reports of Salam`s death.
Afghan security forces have struggled to hold off a multi-pronged insurgency since the bulk of foreign troops withdrew at the end of last year. The taking of Kunduz, even if it proves only fleeting, marked the biggest success for the Islamist insurgents since the Taliban were toppled.
The U.S. military has carried out two air strikes on Kunduz since fighting began on Monday.
A U.S military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one of the air strikes was carried out in an effort to protect coalition forces after Taliban fighters had stolen a tank and were headed towards the airfield.
Even if ultimately unsuccessful, the battle for Kunduz appears to have re-energised insurgents who had appeared split only months ago after it was confirmed that Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had died two years ago.
The Taliban has since said one reason for the assault on Kunduz was to prove the group was united after the appointment of Mansour in July angered many key figures in the insurgency.