KABUL (Reuters) - President Ashraf Ghani congratulated Afghanistan’s armed forces in Ghazni on Friday for their victory over Taliban insurgents in the strategically important city after clashes that killed at least 150 soldiers and 95 civilians.
The five-day Taliban siege of Ghazni eased on Wednesday after Afghan officials declared that they had regained complete control of the city by killing hundreds of the militants.
Ghani met officials in the central city on the main highway linking the capital, Kabul, with the south, to assess security. He also met families of the victims and prayed for the dead.
“I am here to help all those who have suffered losses, I am committed to build the city and also do everything to protect Ghazni,” Ghani said.
“Our soldiers have fought bravely and we stand committed to bringing peace,” he said.
The assault on Ghazni exposed the fragile grip Ghani’s Western-backed government has on security and its apparent inability to prevent large-scale militant attacks.
It also came as Ghani’s government and its international partners had been pushing for a ceasefire during next week’s Eid al-Adha holiday.
Thousands of insurgents entered Ghazni after destroying checkpoints, killing dozens of Afghan soldiers and police officers, cutting communications and the highway.
Police retreated after the assailants captured government offices and police headquarters, a senior security official in Kabul said. The insurgents then roamed around the city, destroying shops, forcing civilians to cook for them, and using some as human shields during clashes, the official said.
Afghan soldiers, backed by U.S. forces, drove the Taliban out of the heavily damaged city after five days of fighting.
Ghani ordered an investigation into the attacks and announced disbursement of $20 million for immediate relief and reconstruction process.
During his visit, two rockets landed inside the city but no one was hurt in the attacks, an interior ministry official said.
Officials in the presidential palace said the devastation and trauma inflicted on Ghazni residents required urgent domestic and international support.
“The five-day war has come to an end but the complex process of rebuilding the city and protecting it from fresh attacks begins now,” said a senior official in Ghani’s office in Kabul.
Afghan forces were on Friday trying to ensure that no Taliban fighters were hiding in the outskirts of the city.
Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said explosives had to be cleared to enable aid organizations to safely respond to the humanitarian crisis.
“We do have capacity to actually spot and map where these mines are, but we don’t have the capacity to remove them - that is the responsibility and within capacity of the national government,” Laerke said in Geneva.
International aid organizations said medical supplies, food and water would be provided to thousands of residents and that ambulances were transporting the wounded to hospitals.
“Several wounded civilians were forced to sit inside homes as they could not come to the hospital during the clashes, we are now treating them,” said Saiyed Ahmed, a doctor at the Ghazni provincial hospital.
Reporting by Rupam Jain, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva,; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel