As the Taliban militant group continues to make rapid advances across Afghanistan, the militants have captured another provincial capital in the northern part of the war-ravaged country, taking the number of cities they have seized since Friday to nine in the latest setback for the Afghan government.
The latest city to fall was Faizabad, the capital of the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which the Taliban militants took control of on Wednesday.
Jawad Mujadidi, a provincial council member from Badakhshan, told Reuters that Taliban militants have taken most of the province and laid siege to Faizabad before launching an offensive on Tuesday, adding that government forces have retreated to a neighboring district following a long battle in the city.
The far northeastern province of Badakhshan borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China.
Following the development, Russia said the Taliban militants have taken control of much of Afghanistan's borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, stressing that it would continue holding joint drills with its Central Asian allies.
The remarks were made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday, saying the continuation of drills comes despite the fact that the Taliban have promised not to cross the border, according to the Kommersant daily.
Troops from Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have held joint military drills near the border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban militant group has over the past month ramped up offensives against Afghan government forces to seize further territory.
Moscow has already pledged to provide its Central Asian ally Tajikistan with military assistance if any security threats emanate from Afghanistan, as the Taliban continue to make territorial gains.
The loss of Faizabad came on the same day that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in the north that plays a vital role for the government to maintain control over the region.
President Ghani arrived in the city on Wednesday to rally his beleaguered forces as the Taliban inched closer to the city’s outskirts.
According to a statement released by the palace, Ghani plans "to check the general security in the northern zone."
He is also likely to hold talks with Mazar-i-Sharif’s long-time strongman Atta Mohammad Noor and infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum about ways and means of defending the city.
The collapse of the city would give the Taliban total control over northern Afghanistan.
Afghan forces repel Taliban attack on Mazar-i-Sharif: Governor
Meanwhile, Balkh governor Mohammad Farhad Azimi has said the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) have pushed back a Taliban offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif.
According to Azimi, the ANDSF and the Taliban clashed in Nahr-e-Shahi district of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan on Monday night, forcing the Taliban to retreat from the area after facing strong resistance from Afghan security forces.
“The Taliban have focused their attention on Balkh province to take control,” Azimi said.
Sultan Musavi, the police chief of Nahr-e-Shahi said, “We managed to recapture this area while facing strong resistance and with the help of air support.”
The Taliban said they were closing in on Mazar-i-Sharif on Tuesday, after seizing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.
Fawad Aman, Deputy Spokesperson of Ministry of National Defense, also said Afghan forces had the upper hand in the city.
A number of residents of a village in Dehdadi district in the central part of Balkh province also said the Taliban militants had fired mortars toward the the Shaheen 209th military corps training center several times in the past few days, adding local residents were very fearful and fleeing the area.
Fighting in Balkh has displaced hundreds of families.
Two more cities fall to Taliban as thousands flee northern Afghanistan
Taliban militants captured Pul-e-Khumri, capital of the northern province of Baghlan, and Farah City in western Afghanistan, within hours on Tuesday evening.
Baghlan MP Mamoor Ahmadzai told AFP the Taliban militants are now in the city, adding, "They have raised their flag in the main square and on governor's office building."
The Taliban also confirmed the seizure of both cities in separate tweets.
Earlier, the militants overran six provincial capitals across the north.
They continue to wrest control of strategic northern provinces in Afghanistan, which have traditionally been the bastion of anti-Taliban resistance.
As fighting raged, thousands of people fled their homes in the north for the relative safety of Kabul and other urban centers.
In the northeastern province of Kunduz, which was seized by the militant group over the weekend, shops have begun to reopen in the center.
The militants have focused their attention on government forces who were pushed back to the nearby airport.
As fighting raged, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned the war is unleashing another humanitarian crisis.
"Unless all parties return to the negotiating table and reach a peaceful settlement, the already atrocious situation for so many Afghans will become much worse," Bachelet said.
She also noted that reports of violations that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity are emerging.
Gulam Bahauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, told Reuters fighting is going on in 25 of 34 provinces and 60,000 families had been displaced over the past two months, with most seeking refuge in Kabul.
The Taliban are now controlling 65% of the country.
Taliban committed to Doha negotiations, Afghan government demands mediator
Separately on Tuesday, a spokesman for Taliban’s political office told Al Jazeera TV that the group was committed to the negotiation path in the Qatari capital, Doha, and did not want it to collapse.
A member of the Afghan government delegation in the Doha negotiations who also spoke to the Qatar-based channel said the government was demanding a mediator in the negotiations “to determine the seriousness of the parties.”
The Taliban "have no interest in negotiating, but rather in achieving its goals with violence. The international community should pressure the Taliban to show seriousness,” the unnamed official said.
In response, the Taliban spokesman said “it was the government that rejected the principle of a mediator, not the Taliban,” adding, “We ask the international community to accurately assess the reality on the ground.”
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.
US President Joe Biden has urged Afghanistan’s leaders to fight for their homeland.
The US president has also asserted that he does not regret his decision to withdraw forces after the US longest war ended in defeat there.
Biden also said the US continues to provide significant air support, food, equipment and salaries to Afghan forces.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby claimed on Monday that the US had launched airstrikes in support of Afghan forces.
He said the strikes were having a "kinetic" effect on the Taliban, but acknowledged limitations.
The north for years was Afghanistan's most peaceful region, with only a minimal Taliban presence. The militants' strategy appears to be to take the north, and border crossings in the north, west and south, and then close in on Kabul.
The government has withdrawn from hard-to-defend rural districts to focus on holding population centers.
President Ghani has appealed to civilians to defend Afghanistan's "democratic fabric."
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