The Taliban have captured a second provincial capital in Afghanistan, a day after they took over the southwestern financial hub of Zaranj, as the insurgent group continued to advance in urban parts of the country.
Taliban fighters armed with heavy weapons overran the strategic city of Sheberghan, the capital of the northern Jawzjan province, on Saturday afternoon.
The city was considered a stronghold of the notorious Afghan warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is believed to be in Kabul after returning to Afghanistan this week following medical treatment in Turkey.
“It’s more than 10 days that the city of Sheberghan is under Taliban attack, but they started their major assault at around 4am this morning and the city fell at around 1pm,” Babur Eshchi, the head of the local provincial council, said by phone from an undisclosed region in the province.
“Local security forces along with the people’s uprising forces retreated over the afternoon after heavy clashes and resistance. They retreated to the airport, one of few places remaining under government control,” Eshchi said.
Fighters have also entered another provincial capital, Kunduz in the north of the country, on Saturday evening.
Heavy clashes are ongoing with the Afghan government, which currently holds key parts of the city. The US sent B-52 bombers to Jawzjan province in a bid to stop Taliban insurgents.
“[The] Taliban’s gathering was targeted by B-52 in Sheberghan city, Jawzjan province today [Saturday] evening at 6:30pm. The terrorists have suffered heavy casualties as a result of US Air Forces airstrike,” said Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for defence ministry.
“More than 200 terrorist Taliban were killed in Sheberghan city after Air Forces targeted their gathering and hideouts today evening. A large amount of their weapons and ammunition and more than 100s of their vehicles were destroyed as a result of the airstrikes,” he said.
The Taliban have seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May. The insurgents did not initially target major urban areas, but are now threatening several large cities, including Herat and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
Only Sheberghan’s airport remained under government control as Taliban fighters shared clips showing their presence inside the local governor’s compound.
“There are no clashes for the airport at this hour. Local police commander and governor are there at the moment. We don’t know what’s going on with the people inside the city and that is concerning, but they were devastated in the early hours of today,” another local official said.
“There is no military plan to take the city back, but we are in touch with Kabul. We asked for reinforcement, we received some, but that was not enough; the city fell.”
The fall of Sheberghan came after the Taliban took over the city of Zaranj, in the southwest province of Nimroz, on Friday – the first provincial capital to be captured by the insurgents, in an intensification of their nationwide offensive.
The insurgents also claimed responsibility for the killing of the head of the Afghan government’s media information department in Kabul on Friday.
People in Sheberghan said the city was almost empty on Saturday afternoon and many residents had fled to neighbouring provinces.
“The city is completely under the Taliban control. They are freely patrolling in the city, but there is still sporadic gunfire in parts of the city,” one resident said.
“There are few people out on [the] streets. Those who came back to their businesses are very scared as Taliban are in control now.”
“The city was full of inmates this morning,” he added, referring to the Taliban’s release of hundreds of inmates from the provincial prison in the early hours of Saturday.
“Local people are in a devastating situation. Many had already fled to the provincial capital when their regions fell. People who could fled to places like [the city of ] Mazar.” - Guardian