KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban launched two large-scale, coordinated assaults on opposite ends of Afghanistan on Monday, attacking a northern city from several directions and killing a police chief in the south where they threatened to overrun a district in the insurgents' heartland of Helmand.
Officials in northern Kunduz province and in Helmand described fierce, well-planned operations, involving a large number of gunmen who attacked under cover of darkness. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, attacks on civilians and soldiers claimed at least seven more lives on Monday.
The attacks came as President Ashraf Ghani prepared to head to Brussels for a key international aid conference this week, where he expects donors to pledge $3 billion a year in assistance for his impoverished, war-torn nation.
The Kunduz attack came a year after the insurgents took control of the city and held off Afghan security forces, backed by U.S. troops and air power, for several days there.
Residents and officials said the fighters attacked from all directions in Monday's assault. Mahmood Danish, spokesman for the Kunduz provincial governor, said security forces managed to keep them at bay.
The Interior Ministry said a policeman was killed and four were wounded in the ongoing fighting. A ministry statement said the situation was being monitored in case reinforcements are needed.
Kunduz is the capital of the strategically important Kunduz province, a breadbasket region that borders Tajikistan to the north and sits on a major crossroad in the country.
The city was overrun by the Taliban in September 2015, the first time the militant group had taken a major urban center since launching the insurgency 15 years ago. Kunduz came under threat again in April, when Afghan forces aided by U.S. troops and air power pushed the Taliban back into the surrounding districts.
In Monday's attack, the Taliban used residential areas in Kunduz and Afghan "security forces are being very careful to avoid civilian casualties while shooting back at the enemy," said Danish. The Afghan air force was also supporting the ground forces in the fight, he added.
The U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said the Kunduz situation was being monitored but that the international alliance was not seeing evidence "to support the reports that Kunduz is under significant attack."
Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, head of the Kunduz provincial council, said the heavy battles had forced government offices, schools and shops in Kunduz to close. He said parts of the city were empty and highways south toward Baghlan and east to Takhar provinces were also shut amid clashes on both sides of the city.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed the insurgents had captured several checkpoints in the city.
Esmatullah, a 22-year-old local shopkeeper from Kunduz who uses only one name, told The Associated Press that he couldn't leave his home to open his shop because of the fighting.
"We are extremely worried that the Taliban might be able to get control of the city," he said.
Doctors Without Borders had planned a memorial service on Monday for the victims of the U.S. military bombing of their hospital in Kunduz a year ago, but the ceremony was cancelled, the international charity said.
In Helmand, where most of Afghanistan's opium is produced from poppy fields effectively controlled by the Taliban, insurgents attacked a police headquarters in Naway district, killing the local police chief.
Afzel Khan, a policeman who survived the attack, said a suicide car bomber hit the compound around 2.30 a.m., blasting through the gate and allowing gunmen in afterward.
Provincial spokesman Omar Zwak said police chief Ahmad Shah Khan was killed. Zwak couldn't confirm other casualties and denied the district had fallen to the Taliban.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said at least 10 policemen were killed in the attack and another 20 wounded. The figures could not be officially confirmed.
Zwak said the Taliban had also attacked in Helmand's Nad Ali district, but he had no further details. Opium produced in Helmand is worth around $3 billion a year, which helps fund the insurgency.
Elsewhere on Monday, an Afghan soldier was killed and three were wounded when a bicycle bomb targeted an army vehicle in the country's capital, said Sadiq Muradi, a Kabul police official. No group immediately claimed responsibility for that bombing.
In northern Jawzjan province, at least six people were killed and around 45 wounded when a bomb rigged to a motorcycle was detonated by remote control in a busy shopping district, according to Mohammad Reza Ghafori, the provincial governor's spokesman. He said the attack took place in the Darzab district on Monday, a bazaar day, and that he expected the death toll to rise.