Kandahar (Afghanistan) (AFP) - The Taliban stormed into Tarin Kot Thursday, triggering heavy fighting around government buildings as panicked residents scrambled to flee the capital of southern Uruzgan province, the latest city to be targeted by insurgents.
Hundreds of militants battled to overrun the local prison, police headquarters and the governor's compound after breaching the city, but hours later Afghan forces bolstered by reinforcements and air support repelled them from Tarin Kot, officials said.
The attack highlights the once rural insurgency's aggressive push to capture big cities, from Kunduz in the north to Lashkar Gah in the south, leaving Afghan forces fighting without full NATO support thinly stretched across multiple fronts.
The Taliban onslaught in Tarin Kot prompted senior officials to retreat to the airport, home to a military base on the outer fringes of the city, which has been besieged by the Taliban for months.
Tarin Kot's normally bustling streets were deserted and shops closed as civilians sought to escape from the city.
Sabir Menawal, a Tarin Kot resident, said Taliban fighters entered his house near the police headquarters and took up positions inside to fire at government buildings.
"The Taliban instructed us to leave the area immediately," Menawal told AFP. "I fled with my family to a safer area of Tarin Kot, but we fear fighting could spread to this area too."
In a sobering admission, Uruzgan's police chief Wais Samim said many of the city's outer defences had fallen to the Taliban without a fight.
"Some policemen made deals with the Taliban and retreated from their posts. Some people here deliberately want the enemy to succeed," he told AFP. "We will address this issue once we push back the enemy."
- Deteriorating security -
Tarin Kot is the third provincial capital that has come under Taliban attack in recent weeks, after Lashkar Gah and Kunduz, which the insurgents briefly seized last year in a stinging blow to Afghan forces.
The Taliban said they broke into Tarin Kot's prison, but Samim rejected the claim and said many of the inmates had been transferred to the airport.
Boosting morale for government troops, General Abdul Raziq, the powerful police chief of Kandahar province with a fierce reputation for brutality, arrived in Uruzgan with hundreds of reinforcements.
Samim said 79 insurgents had been killed in Thursday's fighting, but declined to give a specific number of casualties for Afghan forces. He added that troops were preparing for another assault to flush out Taliban insurgents from the outskirts of Tarin Kot.
President Ashraf Ghani's office said the government will not allow "Uruzgan to become a sanctuary for terrorists".
"Reinforcements have reached the province, and the local police chief and provincial officials are on the frontline fighting the enemy," presidential spokesman Shahhussain Murtazawi said on Facebook.
NATO forces, which ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, said they were providing assistance to Afghan forces in Uruzgan but declined to provide any specifics.
Since being toppled by a US invasion in 2001, the Taliban have been seen as a rural militant movement capable only of hit-and-run attacks on cities. But they have demonstrated an alarming push into urban population centres over the last year.
The deteriorating security highlights the struggle of overstretched Afghan forces to secure remote provinces such as Uruzgan, a top poppy-growing region where Australian, Dutch and American troops fought for years.