KUNDUZ (Reuters) - Just before dawn on Monday, the residents of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz awoke to the crack of gunfire, as Taliban fighters fought their way into the city from three sides.
Families huddled in basements while bullets flew over the streets outside. Those who owned cars piled in and sped to the relative safety of neighboring provinces.
By nightfall on the same day, many people had been separated from loved ones, as yet unsure of the fate of those left behind.
Others still mourned relatives killed in the Taliban’s most audacious offensive on a city center since the Islamist militant movement was ousted from power in 2001.
“My mother-in-law peeked from behind a wall to see what was going on and was shot in the head and died,” said a Reuters eyewitness who was in his home in Kunduz when the fighting erupted at around 3 a.m.
“It was mayhem and people did not know what to do.”
Normal life was suspended as most shops remained shuttered, government officials fled to the airport and dozens of United Nations staff were evacuated from close to the city center.
“We have handed over the city to the Taliban,” said a U.N. employee who left the city on Monday evening, asking not to be identified. “My family is still stuck in Kunduz. We didn’t have time to evacuate them,” he added.
By midday, Taliban fighters had hoisted the group’s white flag over the main square.
Bearded gunmen roamed downtown’s deserted streets, setting buildings on fire, according to eyewitnesses.
They also stormed the city prison, freeing hundreds of fellow militants being held there, security officials said.
One man who appeared to be a militant reassured a resident who was filming him on a smartphone that the assault on the city was for the civilians’ own good.
“We want to serve the people,” he said to the camera. “Our aim is to build madrassas (religious schools), bridges, schools and roads ... To bring sharia is the only aim we have, our demand from the people is to cooperate with us.”
The movement that rose to power in the mid-1990s was initially welcomed by many Afghans weary of years of invasion and civil war.
But that changed after it introduced a brutal interpretation of Islam, denying women the right to education and work, and carrying out public executions.
Kunduz was one of the Taliban’s last strongholds before they capitulated to U.S.-led forces in 2001.
It has also been targeted by a series of assaults this year, including one previous major push to capture the city.
At a trauma center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres in Kunduz, civilians and combatants from both sides have been regularly admitted with gunshot wounds and blast injuries in recent months, symptoms of the simmering war.
But on Monday, the trickle became a flood. More than 100 wounded arrived at the hospital’s gates, dozens of them with critical head and abdominal injuries, according to a statement released by the group late on Monday.
The scale and coordination of the attack shocked locals and Westerners alike.
“For the first time ever ... we just called ‘Red City’; an uncontrollable, critical security situation,” said a Western security source stationed in the area. “White House down. Office abandoned, all files burned.”
During the day, dozens of Afghan fighters arrived on a military plane to provide backup to struggling security forces on the ground, a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But as darkness fell, the flights had stopped.
“Here at the airport, we have enough forces,” said Matin Safraz, an official with the interior ministry who had been given an AK-47 earlier in the day to help in the battle.
He had not heard from his family, still stranded in the city center, for hours.
“I will stay here and fight until I get my family out of the city.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Donati and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Mike Collett-White