Kabul: Afghan security forces are hunting a senior Islamist militant allowed to settle in the country in 2011 under a government peace plan but who is now leading hundreds of insurgents seeking to overrun the northern province of Kunduz, officials said.
The search for Qari Bilal, who according to the Long War Journal is from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) group linked to al Qaeda and Afghanistan`s ousted Taliban, comes months before most foreign troops are due to leave the country.
Afghan soldiers and police have been engaged in weeks of sometimes heavy fighting against militants led in part by Bilal, according to officials in Kunduz, a province of symbolic and strategic importance.
Kunduz was the last northern stronghold held by the Taliban during the US-led war that ousted the hardline Islamist group in 2001, and is a trade route linking Afghanistan with the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan to the north.
It has been the scene of intense clashes as insurgents opposed to the Western-backed government in Kabul and the presence of foreign forces seek to take control of districts surrounding the provincial capital.
Taliban fighters and their allies have launched a wave of attacks this year, and the involvement of a known militant held in jail at least once since 2011 will be of concern to NATO and Afghan forces urgently seeking to impose stability.
Police said clearance operations against the militants had been successful, and that the government had regained control of most areas of Kunduz.
But provincial governor Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani said on Tuesday that at least three districts out of a total of seven were still under the control of Bilal and Mullah Abdul Salam, another militant leader he identified as the Taliban`s "shadow governor" of the province.
"(Bilal and Salam) have hundreds of Afghan and foreign insurgents under their command," Baghlani told Reuters.
The offensive in Kunduz is part of a broader pattern of ambitious attacks by the Taliban this summer across the country.
Emboldened by the political crisis in Kabul, where presidential rivals are at loggerheads, and the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014, militants have launched unusually big offensives in the north, east and south.