KABUL Afghan security forces are battling the Taliban for control of the northern province of Kunduz, where insurgents are threatening to overrun the capital and terrorizing residents who have fled to nearby districts.
The battle for Kunduz, as politicians wrangle amid a deadlocked presidential election in the capital, has special significance for people on both sides: it was the Taliban's last stronghold before the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance drove them out in 2001.
The fighting in Kunduz reflects a broader trend of insurgent attacks across the country involving hundreds of fighters at a time.
Most Western troops are due to leave Afghanistan after 13 years of fighting, leaving a security vacuum some fear the Taliban could quickly fill as Afghan security forces grapple with maintaining law and order on their own.
Kunduz city residents have once again grown used to the daily sound of gunfire as fighting rages just a few kilometers away. While the government still holds the capital, it lacks resources - including military air power - to regain areas beyond the perimeter that are now largely under Taliban control.
"People are concerned and most of them have already fled to safe places outside Kunduz," said Chahar Darah district police commander Abdul Shukor Surkhi.
Police sources in Kunduz say some 1,500 Taliban fighters are engaged in the assault on their province, but deny control is slipping from their hands.
"They are dreaming if they think they will occupy it," deputy police chief Sayed Jahangeer Karamat told Reuters.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgents controlled four of the province's seven districts.
"All allegations that the enemy has made about regaining control of the districts is totally wrong," Mujahid said.
Both the Taliban and police spokesmen said they had the support of ordinary residents.
Heavy fighting was also under way in the southern province of Helmand, where entire districts are essentially under Taliban control and local police are seeking a truce with militants to stop the bloodshed.
In several other provinces, including Kandahar in the south and Baghlan in the north, Afghan security forces struggling for control have resorted to desperate measures, asking their men to kill any Taliban prisoners on the spot.
Deputy police chief Karamat blamed the situation on the deadlocked presidential election that has raised the specter of the civil war that devastated Afghanistan in the 1990s, saying uncertainty had emboldened the militants.
"If they don't announce the final results in the next few days, the situation will get even worse," Karamat said. "But we are ready to defend this country."
While the number of threats against district centers like Kunduz has been on the rise, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), insurgents' success in taking control of large swathes of territory has so far been limited.
"As we get into late summer, there's been a marked uptick in insurgent attacks. They are longer in duration, bigger in size and against more ambitious targets," said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the ICG in Kabul. "They are not harassing in the minor way they used to."
(Additional reporting by Feroz Sultani in Kunduz; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Jessica Donati and Maria Golovnina)