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Voices From Kunduz: Fear, Disbelief As Taliban Controls City

Afghan Security Forces Fight To Retake Kunduz
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WATCH: Afghan forces, with U.S. air support, battled Taliban fighters on September 29 for control of Kunduz after the militants seize the provincial capital. The Afghan Defense Ministry said government forces retook the city prison and the provincial police headquarters from Taliban fighters. (Reuters)

It took only a few hours for the Taliban to seize much of the northern city of Kunduz in a lightning offensive that left the city in a state of stunned disbelief.

One resident described the scene as eerily calm when militants gathered in the city center shortly after routing government forces and police on September 28.

"I am standing in the main square of Kunduz city right now and the city is under the rule of the Taliban," the resident, who did not identify himself, told RFE/RL by phone.

"All banners and posters of commander Ahmad Shah Masud and other mujahedin leaders are being torn down by the Taliban, and they have organized the crowd of onlookers around them so that the two sides are shouting slogans in support of each other," he said.

The Taliban replaced the posters of Masud, who led the anti-Taliban coalition in northern Afghanistan until he was assassinated in 2001, with its trademark white battle flag. The gesture marked the Taliban's return to the city that was its northern stronghold before it was toppled from power by the U.S. invasion 14 years ago.

But if calm immediately followed the seizure of Kunduz, the mood has since turned increasingly fearful.

One reason is fear of arbitrary killings by the fundamentalist militia. A police commander told Germany's Spiegel Online over the phone on September 29 that Taliban fighters had killed two female doctors at the city hospital. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

At the same time, residents are bracing for fierce new fighting as the government launches a counteroffensive.

One resident told RFE/RL by phone early on September 29 that few people slept overnight. "Last night, government troops, who still control the hilltop positions of Kohna Qala [the city's old fort] and Dawra [near the airport] were firing down [into the city] and the Taliban was shooting back," said the resident, who would not give his name for fear of his safety.

He said civilians felt trapped as the government forces, which retreated to the airport when the Taliban stormed the city, began their counterattack. "There is nowhere to hide when both sides are shooting at each other and shells hit civilian areas," he said.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said on September 29 that "fresh troops have arrived in Kunduz and an operation has been launched." The statement said government forces had retaken the city prison and the provincial police headquarters from Taliban fighters.

Meanwhile, a NATO spokesman said U.S. military planes hit Taliban positions early on September 29 to "eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces operating in the vicinity of Kunduz."

Who To Blame?

Amid the fears of more fighting, many residents say they blame the governor of Kunduz Province, Mohammad Omer Safi, for failing to protect the city despite the clear threats to it.

The Taliban, which had encircled Kunduz for about a year, made a determined attempt to take it in April, when they caught Afghan forces off-guard, but the militants were driven back before they could enter.

Safi, who was not in the city during the assault on September 28, said that it fell "due to lack of care of the central government."

Afghan leaders are likely to exchange blame for a long time over who is responsible for the first loss of a major urban center to the Taliban in 14 years. But city residents say it is they who will pay the price -- sometimes in unexpected ways.

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Freeing Fighters

One man, who identified himself only by the single name Matin, told RFE/RL his cousin was among those the Taliban freed from the city's prison on September 28.

"My cousin spoke with us on the phone and said he had been taken by the Taliban [to another part of Kunduz city] and was told, 'Now we have bought [your freedom], so now you must fight with us against the government.'"

The Taliban is reported to have freed at least 500 inmates from Kunduz prison, about 140 of whom were insurgents, according to a security official.

Kunduz, one of the largest cities in northern Afghanistan, is of high strategic and economic value to both the government and the Taliban because it straddles an important trade route from Tajikistan.

It also lies on the main road connecting Kabul to the northeastern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan, both of which are threatened by insurgents. The Afghan National Army, which has limited air-transport capabilities, relies on the road to supply its forces across the northwestern region.

That suggests neither side will give up the fight in Kunduz easily.

Government troops trying to retake the city are likely to face intense resistance by militants relying on ambushes and roadside bombs to compensate for their own reportedly small number of fighters -- estimated to be in the hundreds, not thousands.

Kabul's forces will also have to weigh the use of their greatest advantage -- their artillery and air power -- against the high death toll it would almost certainly inflict among civilians in the crowded city.

Written by Charles Recknagel, with reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Marzban