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At least 36 Taleban fighters killed

MAZAR-I-SHARIF: Afghan child laborers take a break to eat soup after collecting recyclable materials from the garbage in Mazar-i-Sharif. –  AFP

KUNDUZ: Taleban forces attacked the northern Afghan city of Kunduz yesterday, setting off hours of gun battles, even as US negotiators move closer to finalizing a deal with the insurgents for the withdrawal of American troops from the country. Heavy fighting has gone on in Kunduz since the early hours of the morning after Taleban fighters attacked from several directions, forcing Afghan forces to rush in reinforcements to prevent the insurgents from gaining control of the city.

Electricity and most telephone services were cut, and residents were sheltering in their houses, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of the fighting. At least three civilians were killed and 41 wounded were taken to hospitals, said Ehsanullah Fazli, head of the public health department in Kunduz city.

“The city is completely empty, shops are locked, people aren’t moving, and light and heavy weapons can be heard in several parts of the city,” said local resident Khaluddin, who like many Afghans goes by a single name. Government officials in Kunduz and Kabul said the Taleban were seeking shelter inside homes and some of the fighters had entered the main hospital in the city. The interior ministry said at least 36 Taleban insurgents were killed in ground and air operations in three areas of Kunduz city and clearance operations were underway.

An airstrike in Zakhil area killed 20 Taleban including two commanders, Afghan security officials said. Taleban spokesmen were not immediately available to confirm the casualty figures. “Security forces are repelling the Taleban attack on some parts of Kunduz city. Their top priority is to protect the civilians,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “As always the Taleban have taken positions in civilian areas,” he said in a tweet.

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet that Afghan forces were under heavy pressure in different parts of the city. A Reuters reporter in Kunduz earlier said small-arms and heavy-weapons fire could be heard in several residential areas. “The Afghan security forces are in control of the situation. Our security forces can’t always control where the enemy attack, but we can control what effect they have,” said Massoud Andarabi, the interior minister in Kabul.

Troop withdrawal

The fighting in Kunduz, which the Taleban came close to capturing twice in recent years, came as expectations have grown that US and Taleban negotiators in Doha were close to securing an agreement that would see a timetable for the withdrawal of thousands of US troops. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US diplomat leading the talks for Washington, is expected in Kabul in the coming days to outline the terms of a settlement to the Afghan president ahead of meetings with NATO partners.

Taleban officials said talks had resumed yesterday and could continue until Sunday. A US-Taleban accord would not in itself end the fighting in Afghanistan, but it would open the way for talks between the Taleban and the government in Kabul for a wider peace agreement. US President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States had had good negotiations going on with the Taleban but had not yet reached a deal with them on US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Sources in the Taleban said Trump’s statement that the United States will continue to maintain a force in Afghanistan even after a deal was reached was unacceptable to them as they are demanding a complete pull-out of foreign forces. About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are now in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces carry out counter-terrorism operations. Despite peace talks, fighting between the Taleban and Afghan forces, who are backed by US air power, has not subsided.

Many Afghans worry that the withdrawal of foreign troops will leave Afghan forces vulnerable and further embolden the Taleban, who already control more territory than they have since 2001. The war has ground to a stalemate, with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants. More than 1,500 civilians were killed or injured last month, according to a report by the United Nations. An American service member was killed in combat operations in Afghanistan on Thursday, the US military said, the third to be killed here in the past eight days. – Reuters

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