Afghan forces flushing Taliban out of stategic city of Kunduz

Kunduz (Afghanistan) (AFP) - Fighting continued on the outskirts of Kunduz Tuesday as some frightened residents fled the city a day after the Taliban launched an hours-long assault that was repelled by Afghan forces backed by NATO.

Helicopters hovered over the strategic provincial capital and commandoes were stationed in the main square, an AFP correspondent there said, as Afghan forces conducted a clearing operation warning that militants were hiding in civilian homes.

Dozens of residents could be seen boarding buses, many of them government employees and their families fearing Taliban violence.

"I have to leave the city with my family, because my brother is in the army," 40-year-old Hussain told AFP as he boarded a bus for Kabul.

"The situation is uncertain, if the Taliban find out about it they may kill us. The people are very scared, they are all moving to safer places."

"We could not sleep the whole night, each blast would startle my kids and shake our house," said another resident Amrullah.

"There is no safe place in the city, they are fighting from street to street. I have to move my family to a safer place until the situation comes back to normal."

The assault launched early Monday came just over a year after militants briefly seized the provincial capital, and as President Ashraf Ghani flew to Brussels to meet world leaders for a crucial foreign aid conference.

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said fighting was ongoing in the city's outskirts, and that at least 30 Taliban insurgents had been killed.

The defence ministry earlier Tuesday said three Afghan soldiers were killed and seven wounded in the fighting.

The number of civilians reaching hospital with bullet and shrapnel wounds jumped from around 40 to more than 100 Tuesday afternoon, hospital officials said, with one person killed.

Kunduz provincial governor Assadullah Omarkhil said the operation was moving slowly "because the Taliban are using people's houses to hide".

But a Taliban spokesman insisted via Twitter that the militants were still advancing. The insurgents are known to exaggerate their claims.

Jawid Salim a spokesman for the special forces in Kunduz, said the Taliban were setting fire to some buildings as they were pushed out of the city, including the main power station.

On Monday residents had reported being trapped in their homes by intense fighting as the sound of explosions echoed across the city, with provincial officials voicing fears it could fall.

NATO spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland said the government was in control of the city, but the strength of the attack was still being assessed.

"We did see fighting but we did not see the scale of attack that was initially being reported," he said, comparing it to "exaggerated" attacks earlier this year on Lashkar Gah in Helmand, and Tarin Kot in Uruzgan.

Afghan troops had responded "effectively", he said.

- 'Pity for MSF victims' -

Ghani is meeting world leaders in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday in a bid to secure financial aid from the international community up to 2020.

The meeting, 15 years after the US invasion of 2001, will try to drum up support despite donor fatigue compounded by conflicts in Syria and Iraq plus the worst migration crisis since World War II.

"The enemy attacked Kunduz to catch the world's attention in Brussels," defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Tuesday.

After seizing Kunduz on September 28, 2015, the Taliban held the city for two days then withdrew from the outskirts on October 15. More than 280 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

A US air strike during the fighting hit a hospital operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres on October 3, killing 42 people.

The organisation, which has not since relaunched its operations in Kunduz, had planned to mark the anniversary Monday by sending its country representative Guilhem Molinie and international president Meinie Nicolai to the city.

But the fresh Taliban assault forced them to hastily cancel and evacuate non-medical staff who had been sent ahead to prepare.

It was "a pity for the victims", Molinie told AFP.

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