Afghan security forces are battling Taliban insurgents blocking a main route into the northern city of Kunduz with improvised explosives, officials said on Tuesday, as fears grew local residents could be forced to flee the city.
Heavy fighting has been underway for days around Kunduz, a city that the Taliban have twice come close to capturing in recent years, and government reinforcements included Special Forces units rushed to the province to bolster defenses.
"A fight is going on between Afghan forces and the enemy around Kunduz city," said defense ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish, adding that three operations were underway. "We have the capacity and enough reinforcements to tackle them," he said.
The heavy fighting, which follows the start of the Taliban's spring offensive last month, has underlined warnings of another difficult year for Afghan forces. They suffered 6,785 killed last year and control only around 60 percent of the country.
President Donald Trump is expected to announce an increase in U.S. troop numbers as part of an overall review of United States' strategy in Afghanistan in the coming days.
But with fighting coming closer to the city center, there were growing fears of a repeat.
"This is the third time that government neglect has left people in fear and terror," said provincial council member Mohammad Yousuf Ayobi by telephone. He said homes, farms and animals had been abandoned by people caught on the front line.
"Fighting is threatening them at any moment," he said. "People in Kunduz are ready to leave the city as soon as they can."
Although officials say security forces are pushing back, it was also clear they face a difficult fight with the Taliban, who control much of the countryside around Kunduz and who last week took the district of Qala-i-Zal, just to the northwest of the city on the border with Tajikistan.
Mahfouz Akbari, a spokesman for police in eastern Afghanistan, said the insurgents had concentrated much of their strength on Khanabad, another district they control, located on the opposite side of the city to the southeast.