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Afghan Taliban seize Kunduz city centre in landmark gain

kunduzKUNDUZ, Afghanistan--Taliban fighters on Monday battled their way into the centre of Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan, and seized the provincial governor's office in one of the militant group's biggest territorial gains in 14 years, witnesses and officials said.
  In a major setback for Afghan forces, who abandoned a provincial headquarters for the first time since 2001, the insurgents raised their white banner over the central square and freed hundreds of fellow militants from the local jail. The stunning assault came a day before President Ashraf Ghani's unity government marks its first anniversary, and will further complicate efforts to resume stalled peace negotiations.
  It was the second time this year that the hardline Islamist movement has besieged Kunduz, a city defended by Afghan forces battling largely without NATO's support after it withdrew most of its troops last year. The insurgents launched a surprise, three-pronged offensive before dawn, and by evening had captured the governor's compound and provincial police headquarters, said Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the hardline Islamist movement.
  "Our fighters are now advancing toward the airport," Mujahid said on Twitter.
  Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi later confirmed that "most of Kunduz city has fallen to the Taliban," and said Afghan forces were regrouping at the airport.
  The Kunduz assault marks a troubling development in the insurgency, although government forces have managed to drive the Taliban back from most of the territory gained this year during an escalation in violence.
  "It is certainly the first major breach of a provincial capital since 2001," said Graeme Smith, senior analyst for International Crisis Group. "They are choking the Afghan forces from all sides. It looks pretty grim."
  The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan evacuated its Kunduz compound early on Monday, soon after the assault began. "They've been relocated within Afghanistan," said U.N. spokesman Dominic Medley, declining to say where or how many staff were evacuated.
  The Afghan army's deputy chief of staff, Murad Ali Murad, defended the security forces' performance, suggesting they withdrew to avoid harming civilians with all-out urban warfare. "There were enough troops inside Kunduz city, but the insurgents used some route deemed not that sensitive," Murad told a news briefing late on Monday. "Our forces arrived there on time, but we had to take extra care not to cause civilian casualties."
  Dozens of Afghan special forces were flown to Kunduz airport on a C-130 aircraft and were preparing to launch a counter-attack, according to a senior official in Kabul.
  The U.S. military did not carry out any airstrikes in support of Afghan forces in Kunduz, U.S. officials said. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not say whether any action by the U.S.-led coalition - now primarily in an advise and assist role - was in the works.
  U.S. State Department spokeswoman Katy Bondy said that Afghan forces assumed primarily security responsibilities earlier this year, "and we expected that fighting would be severe this year."
  "The situation remains fluid, and we are continuing to follow the situation closely," she said.
  Abdullah Danishy, deputy governor of Kunduz, vowed that Afghan forces would retake the occupied city. "We have reinforcements coming from other areas and will beat back the Taliban," Danishy said by telephone from Kunduz airport after fleeing his office.

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