Afghan troops recaptured the centre of the strategic northern city of Kunduz today amid fierce clashes with Taliban militants, three days after losing the provincial capital in a major embarrassment for Kabul and its US-led allies.
Fighting raged in other parts of the city, whose seizure by the insurgents raised questions of whether NATO-trained Afghan forces were ready to go it alone now that most foreign combat troops have left.
Residents said soldiers were conducting house-to-house searches and had removed the Taliban flag from the central square, replacing it with government colours.
A Taliban spokesman denied the government had retaken all of Kunduz and said insurgent fighters had withdrawn to the edges of the city in order to attempt to encircle Afghan and US forces.
The Afghan army's Deputy Chief of Staff, Murad Ali Murad, said most Taliban fighters had fled, although some were holed up in civilians' homes.
"Our plan is to force them out of Kunduz," said Murad, who flew to the city on Wednesday to personally oversee the recapture operation. "We will take them out of districts and then out of the province."
A ministry of defence statement said 150 Taliban had been killed and 90 wounded in the overnight offensive.
At least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in the fighting as of Wednesday, according to a tweet from health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar. He also said hospitals in Kunduz had treated about 340 injured.
Terrified residents said there was intense fighting overnight as Afghan forces moved in.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said fighting continued. "It was our tactic to vacate the city to allow enemy troops to enter so we could encircle them," he said.
A spokesman for the Western coalition did not comment directly on what role its troops played in the overnight offensive, if any, saying only they were "involved in Kunduz" in an advisory role.
"Our service members retain the right to protect themselves, if necessary, while performing their advise-and-assist mission," spokesman Col. Brian Tribus added.
On Wednesday, a group of coalition special forces, including US troops, engaged the Taliban in a ground clash, Tribus had said earlier.
He confirmed there had been five US air strikes against Taliban positions near the city and airport since fighting began on Monday "to eliminate threats to coalition and Afghan forces."
The Taliban, whose harsh interpretation of Islamic law during a five-year rule included public executions and denying women rights to work and education, have been fighting to regain power since being toppled by a US-led intervention in 2001.
The once-quiet north of Afghanistan has seen escalating violence in recent years as the insurgency spread, and swathes of Kunduz province have repeatedly come under siege this year.