Gunfire rang out through the main city in Afghanistan’s south after Afghan troops fought running battles with Taliban fighters the second day of fighting since scores of insurgents launched waves of attacks on key government and police targets.
Heavy machine-gun fire and explosions echoed across Kandahar city through the morning as Afghan forces, aided by NATO-led coalition troops, tried to mop up pockets of insurgent fighters, including some who had holed up in a shopping mall.
Kandahar provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa later declared that the attacks had been put down but, soon after he spoke, bursts of gunfire were heard from the shopping mall from which insurgents had been directing fire on his compound, Reuters reports.
At least 18 fighters, many of them suicide bombers, were killed, Wesa said. Three members of the Afghan security forces and one civilian were also killed, he said.
Another 40 people were wounded, including 14 policemen, said Wesa, whose compound in the heart of the city was the first to come under attack on Saturday as heavily armed insurgents launched rocket-propelled grenades.
“The last resistance of the insurgents was rooted out and it is all over now,” Wesa had earlier told a media conference before gunfire rang out again.
Four insurgents were also captured, all of whom had been part of a mass jailbreak from the city’s main prison about two weeks ago, Wesa said.
Interior ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary said eight suicide bombers had blown themselves up during the simultaneous attacks on Wesa’s office, an office of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and police outposts on Saturday.
The attacks shut down much of Kandahar city. Wesa promised on Saturday that the insurgents would be shot dead “one by one”.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bold attacks on the most heavily fortified areas of Kandahar, once a stronghold for the Taliban and the seat of its government, saying they were part of a week-old spring offensive.
Tens of thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops have concentrated their fight to turn the tide against a growing Taliban-led insurgency in and around Kandahar and in neighbouring Helmand province over the past 18 months.
U.S. commanders have claimed success in clearing out insurgent strongholds in those areas but acknowledge that gains made so far are not yet entrenched.
The attacks, which used explosives-packed vehicles as well as fighters on foot, were not in revenge for the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a Taliban spokesman said, despite claims to the contrary by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Other attacks occurred in the neighbouring Arghandab river valley west of the city, an important insurgent route for moving men and weapons into Kandahar city.
Violence across Afghanistan last year reached its worst levels since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict.
The Taliban have managed to carry out a number of high-profile attacks inside Kandahar and in the capital Kabul over the past year despite Afghan and foreign forces beefing up security around both cities.
Last month, hundreds of prisoners, mostly insurgents, escaped from Kandahar’s main jail through a tunnel dug by Taliban militants. A spokesman for Karzai described the escape as a “disaster” for the government.
A Taliban spokesman also said escapees from that jailbreak were among “hundreds” of fighters involved in the attacks.
It was not possible to verify independently the number of militants who took part in the attacks, and the Taliban often exaggerate their claims.