KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban said Tuesday they are withdrawing from Kunduz, a strategic northern city that briefly fell to the insurgents last month, as an Afghan official said life there is returning to normal.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an email to media members that the group's fighters are retreating to avoid further civilian casualties.
Hamdullah Danishi, the acting governor of Kunduz province, said shops and markets in the city had reopened and residents were venturing out of their homes. He said troops were continuing to search the city, suspecting that some insurgents had remained behind.
"Afghan security forces are in control of the whole city," said Gen. Mohammad Qasim Jungulbagh, provincial police chief of Kunduz.
Taliban insurgents were present on the outskirts of the city, and were mostly holed up in the Chahar Dara district, a longtime stronghold, Jungulbagh said.
After two weeks of fighting, local people are venturing out and shops are open again, said Sultan Mohammad, 32, a Kunduz resident. He said electricity was being restored but problems with the water supply remained.
The Taliban stormed Kunduz on Sept. 28 and held the city for three days before being driven back. Exact numbers of dead and wounded are unclear, but believed to be in the hundreds. The Public Health Ministry has said that more than 60 civilians have been killed, and around 800 wounded in the fighting.
Meanwhile U.S. and Afghan forces completed a major air and ground operation against an al-Qaeda training site Sunday in southern Kandahar province in which numerous militants were killed, according to a statement released Tuesday by NATO.
The statement said the operation, which began Oct. 7, was the result of months of intelligence and planning. The U.S. conducted 63 airstrikes while Afghan forces engaged in several ground battles al-Qaeda fighters at two related sites, it said.
"This is one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan," Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a U.S. spokesperson in Afghanistan, said in the statement. "Aside from validating the accuracy of our intelligence, we were able to seize a large amount of data and weapons. Based on the digital media equipment collected from the site, it also appears that this was the location of a large media cell."
Beside heavy weapons and material for roadside bombs, soldiers retrieved valuable intelligence data such as foreign passports, laptops and associated IT media, digital cameras and cards, documents, and mobile phones, the statement said. Additionally they seized anti-aircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenade systems and warheads, machine guns, rifles and ammunition.
"The enormous success of this operation validates our ongoing campaign. Working with, by, and through our Afghan partners, we're building their capabilities while we fight our common enemies," Gen. John F. Campbell, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said in the statement. "That's why our strategic partnership here is so important. We continue to protect our fellow Americans at home by fighting al-Qaeda here. I couldn't be prouder of our brave U.S. servicemen and women and their Afghan counterparts. It's because of their extraordinary efforts that terrorists here haven't been able to attack our homeland in over 14 years."
Meanwhile the Afghan Journalists' Union said Tuesday that a Taliban threat against the staff and property of two major television stations could lead to a media-wide boycott of the insurgents.
The union was reacting to threats issued on Monday against the Tolo and 1TV channels for their coverage of Taliban atrocities in Kunduz. The group said in a statement the stations had been designated as targets and no staff members were safe.
AJU member Fahim Dashti, reading a statement on live television, said any action by the insurgents against the stations would be regarded as a "war crime."
"If the Taliban's threats continue or journalists are harmed, then Afghan media will boycott news coverage regarding the Taliban," he said.