KABUL — Fierce gunbattles raged for a second day on Tuesday in Afghanistan's embattled northern city of Kunduz while in the country's south, insurgents killed 12 policemen at checkpoints around the Helmand provincial capital and seized another district they had attacked a day earlier.
The timing of the co-ordinated assaults was particularly poignant, coming a year after the Taliban captured and held parts of Kunduz before the city was fully liberated weeks later with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
In the latest attack in Helmand, Taliban fighters besieged police checkpoints around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah late on Monday night, killing 12 policemen and wounding another 11, according to Haji Gran, chief of the city's police district 2.
Lashkar Gah has been under threat of Taliban takeover for months as insurgents have been slowly taking control of Helmand since the beginning of the year, with some officials saying that 85 per cent of the province is now under Taliban control — or 12 of its 14 districts.
That includes Khanashin district in the south of the province, which the provincial spokesman, Omar Zwak, said had fallen to the Taliban after coming under attack Monday. In recent days, he said, around 45 members of Afghan security forces have been killed in fighting there and more than 15 have been taken captive.
Zwak said a suicide car bomb attack in district 2 earlier on Tuesday killed six policemen and wounded four others. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks in Lashkar Gah.
In Kunduz, the Taliban began their attack from all directions early on Monday. They briefly raised a flag over a main intersection before being repelled from the city centre.
On Tuesday, fierce fighting was still underway with Taliban gunmen using residential homes as hideouts in a number of areas, slowing down the efforts of Afghan security forces to repel them from the city, said the Interior Ministry's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi.
The Afghan forces were "trying to secure the city," but progress was slow and difficult. At least 30 insurgents had been killed in the two days of fighting, he said. It was unclear how many Taliban were involved in the attack.
Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, said the city has become a battlefield, with fighting going on in many areas.
"We can't go to our (council) office because the area is under the control of the Taliban," he said, adding that council members instead were gathering at a location about 1.5 kilometres (a mile) from the city. The militants have planted mines around the city, making movement extremely difficult, he said. "Local people are trapped in their homes."
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the Defence Ministry, said five Afghan security personnel had been killed in the fighting and 13 others wounded so far.
"We are very careful in using airstrikes and artillery in this fight, to avoid civilian casualties," Waziri said.
Kunduz is the capital of a province with the same name, a breadbasket region that borders Tajikistan to the north and sits on a major crossroad in the country.
Its fall last year sent shockwaves across the country and among Afghanistan's backers in the international community as it marked the Taliban's first capture of an urban centre since the group was driven from power in 2001. Since then, Afghan officials and U.S. military leaders have said it will never fall again.
The city came under threat again in April, when U.S.-backed Afghan forces pushed the Taliban back into surrounding districts.
Sediqqi said Monday's attack could be a Taliban show of force to coincide with a Brussels aid conference where Afghanistan's international partners are expected to pledge billions of dollars in aid through to 2020.
U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said the Afghan military had moved reinforcements into Kunduz overnight but insisted that the fighting was sporadic and that the government still controls Kunduz.
There had been no U.S. airstrikes overnight but "there was one US air-to ground engagement by helicopter on the outskirts of Kunduz city to defend friendly forces," Cleveland said. "U.S. forces ... will provide support as needed."
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.