KABUL (Reuters) - Commercial flights to Afghanistan’s besieged northern city of Kunduz have been suspended, an official said on Thursday, as hundreds of Taliban militants fought against government forces struggling to oust them from the city’s outskirts.
Nearly two weeks of clashes around Kunduz have forced thousands of people to flee their homes and posed the biggest challenge to the NATO-trained Afghan army and police since foreign combat troops withdrew at the end of last year.
Government forces have vowed that the northern provincial capital will not fall into the hands of the Taliban, who officials said were fighting alongside foreign jihadists.
But the difficulty they are having in driving insurgents from the southern district of Gul Tepa and other areas has raised fresh concerns about the strength of Afghan forces, 13 years after a U.S.-backed intervention drove the hardline Islamist Taliban from power.
The fighting prompted Afghan airline East Horizons to suspend its once-weekly flight from Kabul to Kunduz, the only commercial passenger air link to the northern city.
“Since there are security problems we have stopped,” said Omid Sahi, an official at the airline’s office in Kabul.
Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini said that army and police, working with local anti-Taliban militias, killed 35 Taliban in the last two days, including eight foreign fighters.
“There is a woman among those who were killed,” he said, adding that the foreigners were identified as being from Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya in Russia.
The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has long been a magnet for Islamist militants of many nationalities.
Officials have said some foreign jihadists operating in the area have sworn allegiance to Islamic State, the extremist group known in Afghanistan as Daesh that controls parts of Iraq and Syria.
However, Hussaini said police had found the Taliban’s white flag along with the foreign fighters killed.
“We haven’t found any evidence that Daesh is involved in the Kunduz fighting,” he said.
The Taliban’s major push in the north, away from its traditional strongholds in the south and east of Afghanistan, is seen as a bid to take territory from areas where Afghan forces were spread thin.
Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White