Afghan government forces and the Taliban are engaged in fierce fighting in three northern provinces as the militants ramp up their offensives to seize further territory in the conflict-ridden country.
Afghanistan's TOLO news agency said on Sunday that heavy clashes were underway between Afghan security forces and the Taliban in the central parts of three northern provinces of Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul and Jawzjan, with reports of civilian casualties.
The Taliban said in a statement that they had "captured the capital city of Kunduz," a claim not confirmed by local media sources.
An AFP reporter in the area said "Kunduz has fallen ... the Taliban have taken all the key installations in the city."
A resident said the city was enveloped in "total chaos."
Local officials in Kunduz said the militants have reached the main square of the provincial capital and some Afghan troops have retreated towards the city’s airport.
"Fierce street-to-street fighting is ongoing in different parts of the city. Some security forces have retreated towards the airport," Amruddin Wali, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, told AFP.
Citing unnamed sources, TOLO news said "some key government buildings have fallen to the Taliban" as clashes intensified near the police headquarters and the main roundabout in the center of Kunduz city.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense said government forces were fighting to retake key installations in Kunduz.
"The commando forces have launched a clearing operation. Some areas, including the national radio and TV buildings, have been cleared of the Taliban," the ministry said in a statement.
The provincial public health directorate said at least 11 people have been killed and 39 more wounded in Kunduz clashes that started on Friday evening.
Sar-e-Pul falls to Taliban
The TOLO news agency said the Taliban have captured most parts of Sar-e-Pul, with local forces and officials having moved to a military base three kilometers from the center of the city.
Mohammad Hussein Mujahidzada, a member of the Sar-e-Pul provincial council, was quoted by AFP as saying, "The Taliban have surrounded an army battalion on the outskirts of the city. All other parts of the city are under Taliban control."
The Taliban have already taken over two provincial capitals — Zaranj in Nimruz and Sheberghan in Jawzjan.
The militants have also seized dozens of districts and border crossings in recent weeks and are now battling for several key cities.
Media reports said Afghan troops have largely abandoned the countrysides to the militants, but are scrambling to defend a string of cities across the country.
Violence has been surging across Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from the country. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan ousted the Taliban from power, but it worsened the security situation in the country.
Several provincial capitals have been encircled by the Taliban, and heavy fighting has been going on for days in the capitals of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, and in the city of Herat in the west.
The Taliban militants are believed to be in control of about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.
The United Nations (UN) warned this week about the safety of tens of thousands of people trapped in the strategic city of Lashkar Gah — the capital of southern Helmand Province — as the Taliban intensified clashes with Afghan military forces to take control, there.
The government has pledged to defend strategic centers after losing many rural districts to the Taliban in recent months.
Afghan pilot killed in Kabul bombing claimed by Taliban
In another development on Saturday, an Afghan Air Force pilot was reportedly killed by a bomb attack claimed by the Taliban in Kabul.
The pilot, identified as Hamidullah Azimi, died when a sticky bomb attached to his vehicle detonated, officials said, adding that five civilians were wounded in the explosion.
Azimi was trained to fly US-made UH60 Black Hawk helicopters and had served with the Afghan Air Force for almost four years.
The pilot moved to Kabul with his family last year due to security threats.