Taliban fighters armed with heavy weapons have tried to overrun a provincial capital in Afghanistan, attacking security forces and killing at least 14 police officers in Ghazni overnight before being pushed back, officials said.
US attack helicopters and drone aircraft provided government forces with air support. But as smoke rose across the city on Friday morning, witnesses reported bodies lying in the streets.
Provincial officials said the militants entered the city, 70 miles south of Kabul, from two directions and opened fire on all security checkpoints.
“The Taliban launched their assault on all checkpoints of the city at midnight,” Aref Noori, the spokesman for the governor of Ghazni province, told the Guardian. “We fought them inside the city, we pushed them back from the city centre, but heavy fighting is ongoing in western outskirts of the city.
“They couldn’t capture any government buildings… One group of the insurgents used a building near the police headquarters and opened fire so our forces killed them.”
A statement from the US military headquarters in Kabul said fighting had ceased by 8am and Afghan forces had held their ground and maintained control of all government centres.
“US forces responded with close-air support (US attack helicopters) and conducted one strike (drone). In addition, US aircraft conducted a show of presence,” Lt Col Martin O’Donnell, the spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan, said in an emailed statement.
Several bodies of Taliban fighters remained on the street after the insurgents were pushed out of Ghazni, officials said.
“At least 30 dead bodies of Taliban fighters are left on the ground,” Noori said.
The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement saying multiple attacks were launched overnight in Ghazni. Dozens of Afghan soldiers and police had been killed and large quantities of weapons and equipment had been seized, he said.
“Police commander of the province escaped to the airport … attack on the prison started moments ago,” Mujahid said.
Residents said they were trapped inside their homes and could not get information on their friends and relatives.
“It was about 2am when we woke up. I could hear heavy gunfire outside of my home,” Hanif Haidari, a resident told the Guardian. “I did not hear such heavy sound of gunshot in my life. All were terrified. I called to my friends and relatives; they are all hiding in their homes. No one could go outside. I haven’t opened the door yet.
“Taliban used mosque loudspeakers to warn the people. They said ‘Stay in your house, otherwise you will be responsible for your death. You would die.’
“In the early morning, I wanted to go outside, but I saw through a hole in the door that Taliban fighters were firing gunshots through a hole in the door. Helicopters circle overhead now and less gunshots can be heard.”
Provincial officials say there was a delay in sending reinforcements.
“Local people are worried,” said Nasi Ahmad Faghiri, a provincial council member. “We called officials in Kabul and asked them for reinforcement but they did not arrive soon.”
The attack came amid growing hopes of talks to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan and less than two weeks before the Eid al-Adha festival, when the western-backed government in Kabul had been considering offering a ceasefire.
In June, a three-day truce during the Eid al-Fitr holiday brought unprecedented scenes of unarmed Taliban fighters mingling with security forces in Kabul and other cities, fuelling hopes of negotiations to end the war.
Insurgents have regularly tried to take provincial capitals, in attacks that serve both as a show of strength, and a chance to take weapons and equipment.
In 2015, insurgents briefly seized control of Kunduz. They were ousted within days, but it was the first time the group had controlled a provincial capital since they were removed from power in 2001, and a major shock to the government and its backers.
In subsequent years insurgents fought their way back into the heart of Kunduz and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and Farah province last May, but never fully displaced government forces.
AP and Reuters contributed to this report