The Taliban has captured the city of Kunduz, the armed group said, the third provincial capital the armed group has taken over in the last three days.
A Taliban statement on Sunday said it has captured the police headquarters, the governor’s compound and the prison in the city.
Local sources and journalists in Kunduz confirmed to Al Jazeera that Taliban fighters are present in the capital.
“Heavy clashes started yesterday afternoon, all government headquarters are in control of the Taliban, only the army base and the airport is with ANDSF [Afghan security forces] from where they are resisting the Taliban,” Amrudddin Wali, a member of Kunduz provincial assembly, said.
Health officials in Kunduz said that 14 bodies, including those of women and children, and more than 30 injured people have been taken to hospital.
Sunday’s takeover comes after the group seized the provinces of Nimroz and Jowzjan in the last two days.
Kunduz had previously fallen to the group in 2015 and 2016.
On Saturday, the Taliban captured the city of Sheberghan, the city’s deputy governor said, a day after Zaranj, in Nimruz province, fell “without a fight”, according to its deputy governor.
People in Kunduz tried to flee ahead of the Taliban’s arrival, a resident told Al Jazeera, and are still afraid of going outside their houses.
“Though the fighting has calmed, it still feels like a military city,” the resident said, referring to the presence of Taliban forces in key parts of the city and the Afghan National Security Forces carrying out operations in the city.
Afghanistan’s defence ministry released a video of an Afghan commando saying the National Security Forces have been conducting coordinated operations in the province over the last 24 hours.
The commando said in the video that the Taliban suffered heavy casualties in these operations as “they were trying to take key points” in the province, adding that the armed group’s “dream” would not be fulfilled.
“You should be certain that the Afghan forces are with you,” the commando tells the people of Kunduz.
Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis, reporting from the capital, Kabul, said: “A journalist in the centre of Kunduz told us the Taliban has taken over the police chief’s office, the election commission’s office and that the Taliban flag is flying at the central roundabout.”
“The government is denying Kunduz has fallen but, by all accounts, it has,” she added.
Though the Taliban has taken two provincial capitals since Friday, Kunduz – in the far north – would be the most significant to fall since the armed group launched an offensive in May as foreign forces began the final stages of their withdrawal.
The Taliban has gained vast parts of rural Afghanistan since launching a series of offensives in May to coincide with the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops.
The Ministry of Defence said that on Saturday evening, US B-52 bombers struck several Taliban targets in Sheberghan.
A council member of Helmand province said on Sunday that airstrikes damaged a health clinic and high school in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the province.
The defense ministry statement alos confirmed that airstrikes were carried out in parts of the city that killed 54 Taliban fighters and wounded 23 others.
It made no mention of a clinic or school being bombed.
At the same time, intense fighting continued in the capitals of the southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces which the Taliban has been trying to take over for several weeks now.
On Saturday, the US embassy issued a statement condemning the Taliban’s inroads into provincial centres in the south and north.
“We condemn the Taliban’s violent new offensive against Afghan cities. This includes the unlawful seizure of Zaranj, the capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, the attack on Sheberghan, capital of Jowzjan province yesterday and today, and continuing efforts to take over Lashkar Gah in Helmand and provincial capitals elsewhere,” the statement read.
Sheberghan is home to notorious strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, who returned to Afghanistan only this week after medical treatment in Turkey.
Dostum has overseen one of the largest militias in the north, which garnered a fearsome reputation in its fight against the Taliban in the 1990s – along with accusations that his forces massacred thousands of prisoners of war.
On Saturday, Dostum held a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace. A palace statement quoted Dostum as saying that “it is time to stand alongside” the security forces and to “stand against the enemy”.
Any retreat of Dostum’s fighters would dent the government’s recent hopes that militia groups could help bolster the country’s overstretched military.
In Zaranj, social media posts suggested the Taliban was welcomed by some residents.
They showed captured military Humvees, luxury SUVs and pick-ups speeding through the streets, flying white Taliban flags as residents – mostly youths and young men – cheered them on.
“The Afghan security forces lost their morale due to intense propaganda by the Taliban,” a senior official from the city, who asked not to be named, told AFP. “Even before the Taliban attacks … most of the security forces put their weapons on the ground, took off their uniforms, and left their units and fled.”
On entering Zaranj, the fighters opened the gates of the city jail, officials said, freeing Taliban prisoners along with common criminals.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES