Taliban, Afghan forces clash in northern Afghan city amid peace talks with U.S.

Taliban forces attacked the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Saturday, setting off hours of gun battles, even as U.S. negotiators move closer to finalising a deal with the insurgents for the withdrawal of American troops from the country.

Heavy fighting has gone on in Kunduz since the early hours of the morning after Taliban fighters attacked from several directions, forcing Afghan forces to rush in reinforcements to prevent the insurgents from gaining control of the city.

Electricity and most telephone services were cut, and residents were sheltering in their houses, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of the fighting.

At least three civilians were killed and 41 wounded were taken to hospitals, said Ehsanullah Fazli, head of the public health department in Kunduz city.

“The city is completely empty, shops are locked, people aren’t moving, and light and heavy weapons can be heard in several parts of the city,” said local resident Khaluddin, who like many Afghans goes by a single name.

Government officials in Kunduz and Kabul said the Taliban were seeking shelter inside homes and some of the fighters had entered the main hospital in the city.

The Interior Ministry said at least 36 Taliban insurgents were killed in ground and air operations in three areas of Kunduz city and clearance operations were underway.

An airstrike in Zakhil area killed 20 Taliban including two commanders, Afghan security officials said. Taliban spokesmen were not immediately available to confirm the casualty figures.

“Security forces are repelling the Taliban attack on some parts of Kunduz city. Their top priority is to protect the civilians,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“As always the Taliban have taken positions in civilian areas,” he said in a tweet.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet that Afghan forces were under heavy pressure in different parts of the city.

A Reuters reporter in Kunduz earlier said small-arms and heavy-weapons fire could be heard in several residential areas.

“The Afghan security forces are in control of the situation. Our security forces can’t always control where the enemy attack, but we can control what effect they have,” said Massoud Andarabi, the Interior Minister in Kabul.

Troop Withdrawal

The fighting in Kunduz, which the Taliban came close to capturing twice in recent years, came as expectations have grown that U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha were close to securing an agreement that would see a timetable for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat leading the talks for Washington, is expected in Kabul in the coming days to outline the terms of a settlement to the Afghan president ahead of meetings with NATO partners.

Taliban officials said talks had resumed on Saturday and could continue until Sunday.

A U.S.-Taliban accord would not in itself end the fighting in Afghanistan, but it would open the way for talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul for a wider peace agreement.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States had had good negotiations going on with the Taliban but had not yet reached a deal with them on U.S. troops withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Sources in the Taliban said Mr. Trump’s statement that the United States will continue to maintain a force in Afghanistan even after a deal was reached was unacceptable to them as they are demanding a complete pull-out of foreign forces.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are now in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

Despite peace talks, fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, who are backed by U.S. air power, has not subsided.

Many Afghans worry that the withdrawal of foreign troops will leave Afghan forces vulnerable and further embolden the Taliban, who already control more territory than they have since 2001.

The war has ground to a stalemate, with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants. More than 1,500 civilians were killed or injured last month, according to a report by the United Nations.

An American service member was killed in combat operations in Afghanistan on Thursday, the U.S. military said, the third to be killed here in the past eight days.