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Taliban fighters have launched an assault on the provincial capital of Qala-e-Naw, their first bid to seize a large city since the US started withdrawing its troops. Meanwhile, Iran hosted surprise peace talks in Tehran.
Afghan authorities claimed Qala-e Naw, the capital of Afghanistan's western Bagdhis province, suffered a Taliban assault from three sides early on Wednesday.
"They entered some parts of the city, but later on the enemy was faced with a strong reaction," said provisional governor Husamuddin Shams. The Reuters news agency reported reprisal airstrikes and evictions by Afghan special forces.
Earlier, AFP had quoted Shams as saying "all the districts [in Qala-e-Naw] have fallen." Other provincial officials said Taliban entered police headquarters and 200 prisoners escaped a central Bagdhis jail. Local residents had fled toward Herat, a neighboring Afghan province.
Social media videos seemed to show Taliban fighters on motorbikes heading into the city. The attack comes as the militants seize rural districts in northern Afghanistan and make incursions toward the Herat province.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman vowed that the insurgents would be evicted. The Taliban itself did not publicly comment on fighting in Qala-e-Naw.
The ministry claimed that the insurgents incurred heavy casualties while dozens of pro-government troops had been killed.
Wednesday's battle coincided with surprise talks hosted in neighboring Iran between Taliban envoys and Kabul government officials, including former Afghan Vice President Younus Qanooni.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif urged Taliban and government intermediaries to "take difficult decisions today for the future of their country," according to Iranian state media. Zarif also criticized the "failure" of the US in Afghanistan.
Last week, all US and NATO forces vacated the Bagram Air Base near Kabul, which served as the command center for anti-Taliban operations. That left air support for Afghan government forces largely curtailed.
The exit of 2,500 US troops — now 90% complete — and 7,000 allied NATO soldiers comes 20 years after a US-led 2001 operation to topple the Taliban, which had been accused of harboring al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on New York.
According to AP, fear is growing in Iran that the country would face a potential wave of refugees fleeing a disintegrating Afghanistan.
Iran already hosts hundreds of thousands of Afghans seeking refuge.
A Taliban capture of Qala-e-Naw would be of "strategic value as it creates a psychological effort of Afghan forces losing territory like dominoes," Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani told the AFP.
Afghan defense officials have already vowed to secure major cities, roads and border towns to ward off Taliban offensives.
In a further sign of instability, security sources in Tajikistan said Afghanistan had flown home 280 of its servicemen who were forced to retreat north across the Afghan-Tajk border recently during Taliban advances.
ipj/dj (AP, Reuters, AFP)