KABUL, Sept 8 – Taliban forces were fighting on Thursday within the capital of Afghanistan’s central province of Uruzgan, one of the top poppy-cultivating provinces in the country, threatening government offices as the leadership fled to the airport, officials said.
Militants had fought their way to within a few hundred metres of the governor’s compound and police headquarters while gun battles spread in Tarin Kot, a city of about 70,000 people, said provincial police chief Wais Samim.
The militant offensive, and the apparent government collapse in some areas, was reminiscent of the Taliban’s speedy but brief capture of Kunduz city last year, the first time the group had seized a provincial capital since they lost power in 2001.
Leaders in Uruzgan had retreated to the airport, which houses an Afghan military base, according a police official who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In Kabul, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said reinforcements had arrived in Tarin Kot.
“Uruzgan will not turn into a terrorists’ safe heaven,” he said.
In separate phone interviews with Reuters, security officials were already assigning blame for the apparent collapse of the defences.
Police chief Samim said many of the city officers had made deals with the Taliban and left their checkpoints without a fight, while another police official accused the province’s senior leadership of abandoning the city.
Late on Wednesday, the Taliban released a statement promising government forces protection if they surrendered peacefully.
The city’s prison had fallen to the advancing militants, but its occupants had previously been transferred to the airport, said Abdul Karim, head of the Uruzgan provincial council.
In a statement online, the Taliban said their fighters had entered the city and overrun at least seven checkpoints as well as the prison, with city officials taking the prisoners as “hostages” and fleeing to the airport.
“Street to street clashes are currently taking place against the enemy inside the city,” the statement said.
Last year, Kunduz was retaken by the government only after nearly two weeks of fighting, with American special forces and warplanes backing up elite Afghan troops.
A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul said officials were monitoring the situation, but as of Wednesday there were no coalition advisers in Uruzgan and no American air strikes had been conducted this week.
At least 69 coalition troops died in Uruzgan province during nearly a decade and a half of international military efforts to defeat the Taliban and other militant groups after 2001.
The province is in an area of south-central Afghanistan long dominated by the Taliban as well as other warlords who vie for lucrative access to the regions smuggling routes and illicit drug production.
Uruzgan is one of the top poppy-growing provinces, with an increase of 22 percent in opium production last year, according to the United Nations.