Over 100 Afghan police, soldiers killed in dayslong Ghazni siege
Ghazni residents flee city, tell of bodies lying in the streets after attack that began Aug. 10
The battle with the Taliban in the eastern city of Ghazni has killed about 100 police officers and soldiers as well as at least 20 civilians, Afghanistan's defence minister says.
Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami gave the toll at a news conference on Monday, the fourth day of fighting in Ghazni, the provincial capital of the province with the same name. He said the casualty figures are not yet definite and the numbers might change.
He did not offer a breakdown of the casualties, but Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said nearly 70 police officers were among those killed.
The Taliban launched a massive attack on Ghazni on Friday, overwhelming the city's defences and capturing parts of it.
The defence minister said about 1,000 additional troops have been sent to Ghazni and helped prevent the city from falling into Taliban hands.
He also said 194 insurgents, including 12 leaders, were killed. They include Pakistani, Chechen and Arab foreign fighters.
The Taliban attack on Ghazni, a strategic centre on the main highway linking the capital Kabul with southern Afghanistan, is a blow to President Ashraf Ghani weeks before parliamentary elections and dampens hopes of a start to peace talks.
The insurgents seized control of the districts of Khawaja Omari, north of Ghazni city and Ajrestan, in the west.
'A ghost city'
Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians have fled from the city.
One of them, 60-year-old Ghulam Mustafa, made it to neighbouring Maidan Wardak province with 14 of his family members.
"The city became so dangerous," he told The Associated Press. "Ghazni has become a ghost city."
Mustafa's wife Razia said they had no food, water or electricity for the past four days.
"There were so many dead bodies under the bridges, at the side of roads and under the destroyed houses," she said.
The United Nations has expressed concerns for the civilians caught up in the fighting.
Ghazni's residents "have seen their city turn into a battlefield since Friday morning, with fighting and clashes reportedly still ongoing.
"We have received initial reports of a number of civilian casualties and of people trying to reach safe areas outside of the city," said Rik Peeperkorn, acting UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Afghanistan.
U.S. special forces involved
Ghazni's hospitals are running out of medicines and people are unable to safely bring in casualties, Peeperkorn's statement added. Electricity, water supplies and food are also running low.
"Parties to the conflict need to ensure that access to medical services is not denied and respect for medical facilities and staff is upheld," Peeperkom said.
Afghan officials said U.S. special forces units were on the ground helping to co-ordinate airstrikes and ground operations. The U.S. military said American aircraft had launched two dozen airstrikes since Friday.
"U.S. advisers are assisting the Afghan forces and U.S. air power has delivered decisive blows to the Taliban, killing more than 140 since Aug. 10," said Lt.-Col. Martin O'Donnell, spokesperson for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
O'Donnell said there was no threat the local government would collapse, but "clearing operations are ongoing and sporadic clashes with the Taliban, particularly outside the city, continued."
People escaping the city have described widespread destruction and bloodshed. and Afghanistan's largest television station, Tolo News, broadcast shaky phone footage showing fires apparently raging across the blacked-out centre.
As troops were battling Taliban fighters in Ghazni, a suicide bomber in Kabul detonated explosives near the office of the independent election commission, where dozens of protesters had gathered, killing at least one police officer and wounding another.
The protesters had turned out in support of a parliamentary candidate disqualified by electoral officials over suspected links with illegal armed groups, as barred lawmakers encourage protests to disrupt the panel's activities.
With files from Reuters