Afghan security forces have faced a major blow with the loss of Kunduz
The Taliban have captured the key northern Afghan city of Kunduz, one of the country’s largest, after fierce fighting with government forces.
A local official told the BBC all but the city’s airport had fallen to the militants. The group’s flag was seen raised in the city centre.
Chaotic scenes have been reported with buildings and shops ablaze.
Four regional capitals have now fallen to the Taliban since Friday. Kunduz is their most important gain this year.
The militants also fought their way into another northern city, Sar-e-Pul, which was captured within hours of Kunduz. Afghan officials insist their forces still remain in the cities that have fallen, and fighting is ongoing.
Violence has escalated across Afghanistan after US and other international forces began to withdraw their troops from the country, following 20 years of military operations.
Taliban militants have made rapid advances in recent weeks. Having captured large swathes of the countryside, they are now targeting key towns and cities.
There is also heavy fighting in Herat in the west, and the southern cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.
Thousands of civilians have been displaced during the fighting this year. Families, including babies and young children, have been sheltering in a school in the north-eastern city of Asadabad.
“Many bombs were dropped on our village. The Taliban came and destroyed everything. We were helpless and had to leave our houses. Our children and ourselves are sleeping on the ground in dire conditions”, Gul Naaz told AFP.
“There was firing, one of my seven-year-old daughters went out during that fighting and disappeared. I don’t know if she is alive or dead,” another displaced resident said.
Displaced children take refuge at a school in Asadabad, Kunar province near the Pakistan border
The US has intensified its air strikes on Taliban positions, with Afghan military officials saying militants have been killed. But the Taliban say the air strikes hit two hospitals and a school in the city of Lashkar Gah. Neither claim has been independently verified.
The US embassy in Afghanistan has condemned the Taliban’s “violent new offensive against Afghan cities”, saying the group’s actions to “forcibly impose its rule are unacceptable”.
“They demonstrate wanton disregard for the welfare and rights of civilians and will worsen this country’s humanitarian crisis,” it said in a statement.
The importance of Kunduz
The seizure of Kunduz is the most significant gain for the Taliban since they launched their offensive in May.
The city is considered a gateway to the country’s northern provinces. And its location makes it strategically important as there are highways connecting Kunduz to other major cities, including the capital Kabul, and the province shares a border with Tajikistan.
That border is used for the smuggling of Afghan opium and heroin to Central Asia, which then finds its way to Europe. Controlling Kunduz means controlling one of the most important drug smuggling routes in the region.
It also holds symbolic significance for the Taliban because it was a key northern stronghold before 2001. The militants captured the city in 2015 and again in 2016 but have never been able to hold it for long.