The onslaught is Taliban's most serious since it nearly overran Farah in May
Ghazni battle: conflicting reports on Taliban attempt to seize Afghan city
Taliban insurgents attacked police headquarters and other government buildings in Ghazni in central Afghanistan on Sunday and were threatening to seize control of the city, with the main highway now heavily mined, local politicians and residents said.
US aircraft conducted at least four air strikes but details of the fighting were unclear as most of the city's telecoms masts were destroyed in fighting over recent days.
Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, Afghan army chief of staff, said the city was not under threat of collapse and heavy fighting was underway to push back the Taliban from city limits.
"Strategic locations and centres in the city are under the control of Afghan forces and the Taliban are hiding inside people's homes and shops and resisting," he told reporters at a news conference in Kabul.
But MPs from Ghazni who managed to talk to some residents said the Taliban were in control of much of the city after launching an attack in the early hours of Friday.
"Only the governor's office, police headquarters and intelligence agency's compound are in the hands of the government and Taliban are pushing to take them," said Chaman Shah Ehtemadi, one of the MPs.
The attack on Ghazni, a strategic city on the main highway linking Kabul with Afghanistan's south, was the most serious blow to the government since the insurgents came close to overrunning the city of Farah in May. It also sends mixed signals about the Taliban's intentions regarding a peace process. The group said its representatives held talks with a top US official last month and visited Uzbekistan last week to discuss peace and infrastructure projects.
The western-backed government had been considering a ceasefire during the Eid Al Adha holiday next week, similar to the truce for Eid Al Fitr in June, when the Taliban suspended fighting for the first time in its 17-year insurgency.
Mohammad Rahim Hasanyar, a member of the provincial council, said heavy fighting was continuing in several areas of Ghazni on Sunday and Afghan forces were in defence mode.
"No one knows what the exact situation is because there is no communication service," he said.
There was no confirmed word on casualties. Quoting a hospital official, Afghanistan's 1TV television reported more than 90 members of the security forces and 13 civilians had been killed, with more than 100 wounded. It said there had also been heavy Taliban casualties.
Najib Danish, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said earlier that 25 policemen had been killed, along with one Afghan journalist, whom he did not identify.
With the highway heavily mined to prevent reinforcements from arriving, residents were largely trapped inside the city but some who managed to escape across fields to the outskirts said many government buildings were on fire.
"There was burning and fire and dead bodies everywhere in the city," said Abdul Wakil, a resident who escaped, at a checkpoint into Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a social media post that the group had captured Ghazni's main prison and freed many inmates, but Afghan officials could not immediately confirm or reject the statement.
A senior security official said special forces had been sent to push the Taliban back from around the city but many fighters were still inside the centre after going into hiding following their initial assault on Friday.
The official said Afghan and US aircraft had carried out strikes outside the city but many fighters were in residential areas, making it difficult for security forces to rely on air support.
The US military headquarters in Kabul said sporadic clashes were occurring and American aircraft had conducted five strikes on Saturday and four more on Sunday.
"The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces continue to hold their ground and maintain control of all government centers," Lt Col Martin O'Donnell, US Forces Afghanistan spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
Amid the fighting on Saturday, the Taliban's political office announced that a delegation met officials in Uzbekistan during a five-day trip to the country to discuss issues including transport and power lines and peace in Afghanistan.
Taliban representatives met Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdul Aziz Kamilov and Special Representative for Afghanistan Ismatulla Irgashev during the August 6-10 visit, a spokesman said.
They discussed "current and future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines”, Muhammad Sohail Shaheen said.
“Views were also exchanged with officials of Uzbekistan about the withdrawal of foreign forces and how to achieve peace in Afghanistan,” he said.
The rail and power links from Uzbekistan are vital both for cross-border trade and for maintaining Afghanistan’s shaky power supplies, which are already subject to frequent blackouts.
The Taliban are active across much of Afghanistan and control many rural areas but have not held a provincial centre since they briefly seized the northern city of Kunduz in 2015.