MAZAR-I-SHARIF: Afghan child laborers take a break to eat soup after collecting recyclable materials from the garbage in Mazar-i-Sharif. -  AFP

KUNDUZ: Taleban
forces attacked the northern Afghan city of Kunduz yesterday, setting off hours
of gun battles, even as US negotiators move closer to finalizing a deal with
the insurgents for the withdrawal of American troops from the country. Heavy
fighting has gone on in Kunduz since the early hours of the morning after
Taleban fighters attacked from several directions, forcing Afghan forces to
rush in reinforcements to prevent the insurgents from gaining control of the

Electricity and
most telephone services were cut, and residents were sheltering in their
houses, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of the fighting. At
least three civilians were killed and 41 wounded were taken to hospitals, said
Ehsanullah Fazli, head of the public health department in Kunduz city.

"The city is
completely empty, shops are locked, people aren't moving, and light and heavy
weapons can be heard in several parts of the city," said local resident
Khaluddin, who like many Afghans goes by a single name. Government officials in
Kunduz and Kabul said the Taleban were seeking shelter inside homes and some of
the fighters had entered the main hospital in the city. The interior ministry
said at least 36 Taleban insurgents were killed in ground and air operations in
three areas of Kunduz city and clearance operations were underway.

An airstrike in
Zakhil area killed 20 Taleban including two commanders, Afghan security
officials said. Taleban spokesmen were not immediately available to confirm the
casualty figures. "Security forces are repelling the Taleban attack on
some parts of Kunduz city. Their top priority is to protect the
civilians," said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan President
Ashraf Ghani. "As always the Taleban have taken positions in civilian
areas," he said in a tweet.

Taleban spokesman
Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet that Afghan forces were under heavy pressure
in different parts of the city. A Reuters reporter in Kunduz earlier said
small-arms and heavy-weapons fire could be heard in several residential areas.
"The Afghan security forces are in control of the situation. Our security
forces can't always control where the enemy attack, but we can control what
effect they have," said Massoud Andarabi, the interior minister in Kabul.

Troop withdrawal

The fighting in
Kunduz, which the Taleban came close to capturing twice in recent years, came
as expectations have grown that US and Taleban negotiators in Doha were close
to securing an agreement that would see a timetable for the withdrawal of
thousands of US troops. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US diplomat leading
the talks for Washington, is expected in Kabul in the coming days to outline
the terms of a settlement to the Afghan president ahead of meetings with NATO

Taleban officials
said talks had resumed yesterday and could continue until Sunday. A US-Taleban
accord would not in itself end the fighting in Afghanistan, but it would open
the way for talks between the Taleban and the government in Kabul for a wider
peace agreement. US President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States had
had good negotiations going on with the Taleban but had not yet reached a deal
with them on US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Sources in the
Taleban said Trump's statement that the United States will continue to maintain
a force in Afghanistan even after a deal was reached was unacceptable to them
as they are demanding a complete pull-out of foreign forces. About 20,000
foreign troops, most of them American, are now in Afghanistan as part of a
US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces
carry out counter-terrorism operations. Despite peace talks, fighting between
the Taleban and Afghan forces, who are backed by US air power, has not

Many Afghans
worry that the withdrawal of foreign troops will leave Afghan forces vulnerable
and further embolden the Taleban, who already control more territory than they
have since 2001. The war has ground to a stalemate, with casualties rising
among civilians as well as combatants. More than 1,500 civilians were killed or
injured last month, according to a report by the United Nations. An American
service member was killed in combat operations in Afghanistan on Thursday, the
US military said, the third to be killed here in the past eight days. - Reuters