KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — The Taliban have launched an attack from several directions on the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, which they have occupied twice in recent years, even as the insurgents seemed close to a preliminary peace agreement with American diplomats.
Residents said on Saturday morning that heavy fighting had been underway in several corners of the city since before dawn, and that the streets were largely deserted.
Ehsanullah Fazli, the health director for Kunduz Province, said the militants took over his department’s headquarters in the city. They eventually left the building, but remained outside the headquarters and a nearby hospital.
He said three bodies and 40 wounded people had been brought to the hospital so far, but that the real toll in the city was probably much higher, because fighting was preventing ambulances from leaving the hospital to pick up the wounded.
Security officials acknowledged that Afghan forces were fighting off assaults in at least three parts of the city, with at least two police precinct offices taking fire from the Taliban.
“Hundreds of Taliban have attacked Kunduz city from three directions, and their assault has been fended off by our security and defense forces,” said Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
“The enemy, in a cowardly way, has taken up position in civilian areas. Our forces are moving with caution in their operations so they don’t cause civilian casualties.”
Afghan Air Force planes flew over the city and carried out several strikes on advancing Taliban positions. Officials in Kabul, the capital, said several units of special forces were on their way to Kunduz to fend off the assault. The operation was largely Afghan, with U.S. forces providing some support, one official said.
Officials in Kabul said more than 30 Taliban had been killed in the airstrikes and ground engagements, but that security forces were moving slowly, because the insurgents were using residential areas to stage their attacks.
The Taliban posted a video of a small group of Afghan police officials surrendering to them. In the video, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, the insurgents call out to the officers, holed up in an outpost across the street, as gunshots are heard in the background. The officers slowly emerge and hand over their weapons, as the Taliban tell them that nothing will happen to them.
In two previous instances in which the Taliban entered Kunduz city, Afghan forces relied heavily on airstrikes. During the first assault, on Kunduz city in October 2015, American planes struck a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials, M.S.F., killing at least 42 people.
Kunduz residents, surprised by the attacks, rushed to stock food and basic essentials on Saturday morning, to find only a small number of shops open. Then even those shops began to close their doors.
“It was around 2 a.m. when we started hearing heavy firing,” said Rahmatullah Rahimi, 52, a Kunduz resident who sells firewood. “With each rocket, our windows would shake. Neither I nor our neighbors have slept all night. How can you sleep with the sound of fighting? We are trying to see whether we should flee or stay.”
The attack comes as Taliban officials and American negotiatorscontinue marathon talks in the Qatari capital of Doha on finalizing a preliminary peace deal. Talks were expected to resume on Saturday morning.
The deal is expected to finalize a timeline for the withdrawal of the remaining American and NATO forces in the country, and to open the path for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the government over the political future of the country. But the violence in Afghanistan has intensified even as the talks have continued.