Kabul: Afghan forces backed by US air support clashed with Taliban fighters in Kunduz on Tuesday in a bid to retake the centre of the northern city, the first provincial Afghan capital to fall to the insurgents since their movement was toppled 14 years ago.
The sudden fall of Kunduz on Monday was a major setback for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which marked its first year in power on Tuesday, and raised questions over how ready Afghan forces were to tackle the Islamist insurgency alone.
Afghanistan`s Defence Ministry said government forces, who spent the night holed up at the city`s airport, would soon retake Kunduz.
"Fresh troops have arrived in Kunduz, and an operation has been launched," the ministry said in a statement.
It added that government forces had retaken the city prison and the provincial police headquarters, which were overrun on Monday night. Hundreds of Taliban prisoners escaped during the jail attack.
US military planes struck Taliban positions on the outskirts of the city, a NATO spokesman said.
The attack at about 9 a.m. (0400 GMT) marked the first U.S. air strike to defend the city.
"US forces conducted an air strike in Kunduz today to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces operating in the vicinity of Kunduz," said Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the NATO-led coalition.
He did not elaborate on how many coalition troops were in the area.
Residents in Kunduz said the Taliban were patrolling the streets in vehicles they had seized from the army, police and Western aid agencies.
"Since yesterday they gained control of our hospital, central bank and other government buildings," said Abdul Ahad, a doctor at the 200-bed hospital in the city.
"They have been behaving very well with everyone, especially doctors. They may win people`s hearts if they stay longer."
A shopkeeper said the number of Islamist fighters in Kunduz had increased early on Tuesday and that they had planted booby traps on some of the roads leading out of the city.
The Taliban`s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, celebrated the Islamist militants` capture of Kunduz, saying in a statement that residents had nothing to fear.
"These conquests are result of almighty Allah`s support and the mujahideen (fighters`) sacrifices. Therefore, officials in Kabul have to admit their defeat with courage," Mansour said.
"Kunduz residents should not be worried about their lives and property. They should continue as normal without any tension," he added.
The Taliban`s former government imposed strict Islamic law over Afghanistan for five years before it was toppled by a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001.
Its members have been fighting an insurgency ever since, although it has increased in intensity since the beginning of the year after NATO withdrew almost all of its soldiers.
That left the defence of the country largely to NATO-trained Afghan security forces, who have struggled to contain the spiralling violence.
Mansour officially took over the Taliban after the July revelation that longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was dead.