KABUL — Afghan troops have regained control of the main square in Kunduz, a strategic northern city briefly seized by the Taliban last week, following intense fighting over the site, Kabul officials said Wednesday.
The Afghan campaign to retake Kunduz was marred by a tragic U.S. airstrike that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders on Saturday, killing at least 22 people. The international charity on Wednesday called for a fact-finding mission to determine whether the strike violated the Geneva Conventions.
Taliban fighters seized control of Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name, for three days last week. The government launched its counter-offensive on Thursday, and troops have since fought intermittent running battles with the insurgents, who have launched attacks on security forces from the rural outskirts of the city.
Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for the Kunduz provincial police chief, said Wednesday that the government had regained control of the main square, which had traded hands several times, with each side tearing down the other’s flag and hoisting its own.
“The national flag is flying over the main square, shops have re-opened and life is returning to normal,” Hussaini said, adding that main roads running east and south have opened and traffic is starting to flow.
Qamirudin Sediqi, an adviser at the Public Health Ministry, said medical supplies were being delivered to Kunduz airport aboard military flights, lauding what he described as “great co-ordination between the public health and defence ministries” in sending medical aid.
However, some Taliban fighters remain in hiding in residential areas of Kunduz as operations continue to clear them from the city, according to a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani.
“Afghan forces have control of Kunduz city, however, some scattered elements of the enemy are still hiding in the residential areas inside people’s houses,” deputy spokesman Zafar Hashemi said. “This could at times slow down the speed of our military operations as we put the utmost effort into not harming civilians.”
Emergency relief supplies of food and medicines had not been able to reach Kunduz earlier, leading to dire shortages, residents and medical officials said.
Authorities still had no precise casualty figures for the past days since the Taliban blitz on Kunduz, though the number of dead and wounded is believed to be in the hundreds. Sediqi said local hospitals had received around 60 bodies so far, with about 800 wounded since the fighting began with the Taliban assault of Sept. 28.
Residents said militants have regrouped in the Chahar Dara district to the west, where they have been present for months. Bilal Ahmad, a grocer, said he hesitated to open his shop because of the tenuous situation. He said tanks have moved into the main square.
Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, meanwhile called for the first-ever fact-finding mission to be launched under the Geneva Conventions.
MSF’s international president, Joanne Liu, told reporters in Geneva that the strike “was not just an attack on our hospital, it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions. This cannot be tolerated.”
Liu said MSF is “working on the assumption of a possible war crime,” but said the group’s real goal is to establish facts about the incident and the chain of command, and clear up the rules of operation for all humanitarian organizations that work in conflict zones.
Ghani’s office, reacting to MSF’s call for the fact-finding mission, said that “the Afghan government is fully committed to a full and transparent investigation of the hospital incident.”
Afghan authorities “will fully co-operate with the investigation through appropriate channels agreed upon by our partners” in the NATO Resolute Support mission, said Hashemi, the spokesman.
“The tragedy has shocked and extremely saddened the president, who feels the burden of loss of lives of his fellow citizens on daily basis,” he added.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, said Tuesday that the strike was a mistake, and investigations are underway. Preliminary results are not expected for some days.