(KABUL, Afghanistan) — The Taliban launched a new large-scale attack on one of Afghanistan’s main cities, Kunduz, killing at least three civilians, government officials said Saturday, even as the insurgent group continued negotiations with the United States on ending America’s longest war.
The militants, who have demanded that all foreign forces leave Afghanistan, now control or hold sway over roughly half of the country and are at their strongest since their 2001 defeat by a U.S.-led invasion. Such attacks are seen as strengthening their negotiating position.
Afghan officials confirmed casualties among security forces but did not say how many, and said at least 26 Taliban members were killed in an airstrike. They said security forces were repelling the attack in Kunduz, a strategic crossroads with easy access to much of northern Afghanistan as well as the capital, Kabul, about 200 miles (335 kilometers) away.
Presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told reporters the assault was “completely against the peace talks.”
The bodies of at least three civilians were taken to the Kunduz hospital and at least 41 wounded civilians of all ages had been treated, said the provincial health director, Esanullah Fazeli.
Provincial council member Ghulam Rabani Rabani told The Associated Press the insurgents briefly took control of the hospital, but Fazeli said the fighters left after staffers told them the patients could be hurt in any crossfire. “In a way we are thankful that the Taliban accepted what they were told,” he said.
The Taliban launched the “massive attack” from several different points overnight, said Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, spokesman for the provincial police chief, who reported “intense gun battles” around the city.
Hours later the Afghan defense minister, Asadullah Khalid, rejected speculation that Kunduz had collapsed. Security reinforcements had arrived in the morning from Kabul and “very soon” he would be able to announce that the city and surrounding areas were cleared of Taliban fighters, he told the local TOLO news channel.
Officials with the NATO mission in Afghanistan did not immediately respond to a question about whether its forces were responding to the attack.
The Taliban have continued bloody assaults on civilians and security forces even as their leaders meet with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar to negotiate an end to nearly 18 years of war.
Talks continued on Saturday, the Taliban spokesman said. Both sides in recent days have signaled they are close to a deal. The Afghan presidential spokesman said Khalilzad will visit Kabul at some point to brief the government on the details.
One Afghan analyst, former deputy interior minister Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, said the attack on Kunduz showed the Taliban are not interested in a cease-fire, which has been a key issue in the Qatar talks.
The United States in the negotiations has also sought Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan will no longer be a launching pad for terror attacks such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the U.S. by al-Qaida. The Taliban government had harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Some 20,000 U.S. and NATO forces remain in Afghanistan after formally ending their combat role in 2014. They continue to train and support Afghan forces fighting the Taliban and a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
Many Afghans worry that an abrupt departure of foreign troops will leave Afghan forces vulnerable and further embolden the Taliban, who already portray a U.S. withdrawal as their victory.
“We have lost the city in the past and know the Taliban can attack again from insecure areas,” a lawmaker from Kunduz, Fatima Azizi, told the local Ariana television channel on Saturday.
“Unfortunately, civilians are again the victims,” she said.
The Taliban seized Kunduz, at the heart of a major agricultural region near Tajikistan, for around two weeks in 2015 before withdrawing in the face of a NATO-backed Afghan offensive. The insurgents pushed into the city center a year later, briefly raising their flag before gradually being driven out again.