KABUL — Four days of ferocious fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban over a key provincial capital has claimed the lives of about 100 Afghan policemen and soldiers and at least 20 civilians, the defence minister said Monday.
The staggering numbers provided by Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami were the first official casualty toll since the Taliban launched a massive assault on Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province, last Friday.
The multi-pronged assault overwhelmed the city's defences and allowed insurgents to capture several parts of it. It was a major show of force by the Taliban, who infiltrated deep into this strategic city barely 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the capital, Kabul.
The United States has sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces.
The fall of Ghazni, a city of 270,000 people, would mark an important victory for the Taliban. It would also cut off a key highway linking Kabul to the southern provinces, the Taliban's traditional heartland.
Bahrami, the defence minister, spoke to reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Monday. He said the casualty figures are not yet definite and that the numbers might change. He didn't offer a breakdown of the casualties but Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said nearly 70 policemen were among those killed.
Bahrami said about 1,000 additional troops have been sent to Ghazni and helped prevent the city from falling into Taliban hands. He also said 194 insurgents, including 12 leaders, were killed — with Pakistani, Chechen and Arabs foreign fighters among the dead.
The Taliban have inflicted huge damages on the city, especially Ghazni's historic parts and cultural heritage, Bahrami said, adding that he believes the next 24 hours would turn the tide in the battle.
Barmak, the interior minister, said top security and government officials, as well as the military chief of staff were now in Ghazni, leading the "clearing up operations" in different parts of the city."
The attack began on Friday, with insurgents infiltrating people's homes and slipping out into the night to attack Afghan forces in Ghazni.
The Taliban also destroyed a telecommunications tower on Ghazni's outskirts, cutting off all landline and cellphone links to the city and making it difficult to confirm details of the fighting.
Afghan authorities have insisted that the city would not fall to the Taliban and that Afghan forces remained in control of key government positions and other institutions there.
Col. Fared Mashal, the province's police chief, said the majority of the insurgents fighting in Ghazni are foreigners, including Pakistanis and Chechens. "The Taliban have failed in reaching their goal," Mashal added.
Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians have fled from the city.
One of them, 60-year-old Ghulam Mustafa, made it to neighbouring Maidan Wardak province with 14 of his family members.
"The city became so dangerous," he told The Associated Press. "Ghazni has become a ghost city."
Mustafa's wife Razia said they had no food, water or and electricity for the past four days. "There were so many dead bodies under the bridges, at the side of roads and under the destroyed houses," she said.
A 14-year-old girl, Fereshta, who only goes by one name, said when the Taliban entered Ghazni, it was the first time in her life that she saw the insurgents.
Over the past months, the Taliban have seized several districts across Afghanistan, staging near-daily attacks on Afghan security forces, but have been unable to capture and hold urban areas.
The United States and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but have since then repeatedly come to the aid of Afghan forces as they struggle to combat the resurgent Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is said to be considering a cease-fire offer to the Taliban for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which starts Aug. 21. A three-day holiday cease-fire in June brought rare quiet to much of the country, but the insurgents rejected a government request to extend it.
Instead, the Taliban appear intent on seeking a position of strength ahead of expected talks with the United States, which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years.
The Taliban say they met with Alice Wells, the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, in Qatar last month for preliminary talks. Washington neither confirmed nor denied the meeting, but acknowledged Wells was in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an office. The Taliban said they expect another round of talks.
As part of an effort to bolster Afghan fighting strength, the U.S. earlier this year sent more military advisers to Afghanistan. It also shifted A-10 attack planes and other aircraft from striking Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. These and other moves boosted the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500 to a total of more than 14,000.
The United Nations has expressed its concerns for the civilians caught up in the fighting in Ghazni.
Ghazni's residents "have seen their city turn into a battlefield since Friday morning, with fighting and clashes reportedly still ongoing. We have received initial reports of a number of civilian casualties and of people trying to reach safe areas outside of the city," said Rik Peeperkorn, acting U.N. humanitarian co-ordinator for Afghanistan.
Ghazni's hospitals are running out of medicines and people are unable to safely bring casualties, Peeperkorn's statement added. Electricity, water supply and food are also running low, the statement said.
"Parties to the conflict need to ensure that access to medical services is not denied and respect for medical facilities and staff is upheld," Peeperkom said.
Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association jointly put out a statement condemning the violence in Ghazni and attacks on journalists there.
Media technician Mohammad Dawood was among those killed in Ghazni, the statement said, and also condemned the torching of Ghazni's radio and television station.
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Mohammad Anwar Danishyar in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.