Fierce fighting has broken out inside a northern Afghan city, with the Taliban claiming to have captured their second regional capital in 48 hours with more due to fall in the coming days.
The Islamist group said that it had seized control of Sheberghan in Jawzjan province, the stronghold of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, following a siege. The Afghan government insisted, however, that its forces and allied militias were engaged in an operation to clear out the insurgents, with reinforcements on their way to finish the task.
On Friday theTaliban captured their first regional capital in the offensive, launched after the withdrawl of US-led forces on the orders of President Joe Biden. Zaranj, in the southwestern province of Nimroz, was handed over to the Islamist group by local officials who said they had no other choice but to do so after the government failed to send a relief force.
The governor’s headquarters in Sheberghan was recaptured from the insurgents by government forces on Friday. But the region’s council chief, Babur Eshchi, reported that the city centre had been lost in the early hours of Saturday morning with only the area around the airport continuing to hold out.
To add to the tension and uncertainty, the Taliban emptied the local prison after taking it over, and there were reports of looting of the homes of those who had fled Sheberghan or their neighbourhood inside the city.
Ministry of Defence spokesperson Fawaad Aman disputed claims of a Taliban victory maintaining that the main areas of the city remained under government control and the troops around the airport would be “cleared of terrorists soon”.
Ahmed Jawad, a resident of Sheberghan who did not want his surname published, said: “If the army or police are here, we cannot see them. What we can see are the Taliban on the streets and they seem to be in charge. The airport may be in government hands but there are no flights going in or out. I am sure the Taliban would use missiles [against planes] if they try to bring in solders by air.”
Fighting continued, meanwhile, in three other provincial capitals the Taliban are attempting to capture – Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah. In all three of the cities, however, the Islamists have been pushed back, to varying degrees, from areas they had seized.
The reports of the fall of Sheberghan came at the end of a grim week for the Afghan government. As well as the fall of Zaranj, a suicide bombing and gun attack killed 13 people and at least 24 people in Kabul and Dawa Khan Meenapal, the head of the government’s media and information centre, was gunned down on his way home from Friday prayers, in the latest in a series of assassinations by the Taliban.